Canceled flights, long lines, and overall chaos. Airlines are trying to keep up as travel demand goes through the roof following pandemic-related restrictions.
“When the pandemic hit, for most airlines around the country, our traffic volumes dropped by 85, 90, sometimes more than 90 percent,” Captain Marc Champion, the managing director of flight training at United Airlines, said. “With the traffic recovery, we’ve had to recover a lot of people that we had been placed on the sideline, in some cases some carriers had furloughed, to get airline operations back to where they were pre-pandemic.”
Fewer pilots to staff the flights.
Consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that in most scenarios, there will be a global gap of 34,000 pilots by 2025.
“We can't hire enough pilots to keep up with how many airplanes we have to fly,” Captain M’Lis Ward with United Airlines said. She is also an evaluator at the training center and has been flying for more than 30 years.
It’s not a new problem. Airlines were looking to fill the pilot pipeline before the pandemic.
At United Airlines’ expanding training center, pilots get first-hand experience in simulators. United plans to train around 5,000 pilots by 2030 through their United Aviate Academy, their pilot training school. Captain Champion said United is pretty well staffed currently.
This summer, there have been waves of canceled flights due to weather and staff shortages. American Airlines cut three destinations from its network in June. The same month, Delta Airlines cut flights to seven cities.
But there are even more efforts to tap into groups who may not see it as a career option.
“The push right now for women and people of color and minorities also…is not just because this is the right thing to do,” Captain Ward said. “It’s because there are a lot of talented pilots out there that don't have the opportunity.”
She says finances are part of it.
Captain Ward was reportedly the first black woman captain in commercial aviation.
“I'm not going to say that I felt incredibly welcomed as a woman of color…when I first got hired,” she said. “Thirty years ago to today, it's completely opposite.”
Seven percent of all airline pilots are women. Only one percent are women of color, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nonprofits advocating for more minority representation in aviation are becoming more common.
“If you don't see it, it's hard to visualize yourself doing it. For women, for me, I would say that's the biggest barrier even now,” Angel Hughes, the founder of nonprofit Sisters of the Skies, said.
The nonprofit provides mentorship and scholarships to women of color interested in flying.
“These companies, various companies, everybody wants pilots,” Hughes said.
“If you look at the demand for airline employees over the course of the next decade, if we don't cast a wider net and get underrepresented groups more excited about careers in aviation, we’re never going to be able to find the numbers of people that we need to staff our airline. Both at the airports and on board our aircraft. So that's a business imperative for us,” Captain Champion said.
For airlines, getting people interested is just step one. Captain Ward and Hughes strive to offer opportunities to those who may or may not know the opportunity is there.
“What’s the end result? We have more great pilots. It's not taking away an opportunity from anyone. It’s adding opportunity for everyone,” Captain Ward said. The United Aviate Academy – a pilot career development program – hopes to have at least half of the pilots trained at the academy be women or people of color.
“The pilot pipeline starts at the point where we are incentivizing and motivating people to be pilots, professional pilots. It's something that starts in high schools, junior high schools,” Captain Champion said.