Future passenger growth is fueling a need for pilots … and fuel itself

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger traffic is set to double to over seven billion people over the next two decades. The demand can be met by airlines as long as there are enough pilots and enough fuel to fly the needed aircraft. Projections call for a shortage of both unless things change.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing has also set projections based on the expected growth of passenger traffic and the need for newer aircraft. The company estimates that over 550,000 new pilots will be needed to meet the demand of commercial aviation in twenty years. Nearly half of those will be needed for flights in the Asia Pacific region where the growth has been most rapid and the potential pilot shortage will be felt the most. North America and Europe will follow Asia Pacific in the quest for new pilots over the next two decades as older ones retire and passenger numbers continue to increase.

The evolving economies in India and China have produced the most dramatic increases in airline passenger numbers. As the countries develop their aviation markets, the demand often exceeds supply. Take the case of India. One airline, Emirates, flies more passengers out of that country than the national airline, Air India. Outside of North America and Europe, there are fewer schools to train pilots and many carriers in the Asia Pacific region end up hiring western pilots to augment locally-trained and hired ones.

The shortage of pilots is not just about retirements, though there will be a surge of them in the coming years, particularly in North America. The stringent requirements of becoming an airline pilot demand extensive training and sometimes candidates are priced or even regulated out of contention. For example, pilots in the United States must now meet higher training standards and certifications to fly in commercial airliners as co-pilots. Many qualified pilots are being recruited from the regional airlines, leaving those carriers with a growing shortage. The pool of new entrants into the pilot ranks is shrinking too. Sometimes this due to the cost of training and certification (with no loan forgiveness as in some other professions) and sometimes it's because the opportunities for greater pay and benefits exist elsewhere.

Piloting the planes of the future is one thing; powering them is another. Though the projected growth of the industry can be tempered by economic, political or natural events, airlines are anticipating unimpeded growth and the eventual need to adopt alternative sources of fuel. New regulations are in place or on the horizon restricting carbon emissions from airlines. The addition of new aircraft on a global scale will challenge airlines to meet passenger demand while not increasing their carbon footprints. Biofuels could provide a solution but the industry is still trying to get its footing in a sector heavily dominated by the time-tested fossil fuel apparatus.

Even though alternative fuels can be extracted from many sources, including corn, grass, algae and even trash, the costs of development, storage and distribution are high. To help mitigate these costs and move forward with what many experts believe to be the inevitable, some airlines are investing in the technology – a US$30 million infusion into a California-based company by United Airlines being the most recent example. Airlines appear to be hedging against the volatility of fossil fuels and the impact this has on their finances. They are also recognizing the need to evolve as the industry grows amid a changing regulatory climate.