This year, Boeing released their Current Market Outlook (CMO), revealing how they believe the commercial aviation market will develop in the next 20 years. It is a very broad report, covering many subjects from economic growth by region to worldwide fleet growth. What caught my interest, however, was their pilot forecast, which calls for a demand of 460,000 pilots through 2031. According to Boeing, this large demand outlook is driven by quickly developing aviation markets in the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for 40% of the demand. Boeing estimates that China alone accounts for 16% of the demand, or 71,300 pilots.
Many would be quick to criticize the outlook, alleging that Boeing would intentionally paint a rosy picture to soothe investors and attract attention. That is why I tested the validity of the forecast and I’ll reveal my findings in this post. However, I will admit that I could only focus on the North American market due to the lack of available data for all regions. I will explain my methodology and numbers step-by-step below.
First, pilot demand must be split into two categories: new pilots and replacement pilots. Here I am defining “new pilots” as pilots that are hired as the result of growth within a company (i.e. acquiring new aircraft), while “replacement pilots” would be hired to replace pilots who have retired. Here, I’ll cover the new pilots. But how can we measure that? Well, we have to look at fleet growth since airlines would only hire new pilots when they grow their fleet. Boeing’s fleet forecast in their CMO estimates the current North American fleet at 6,650 aircraft and predicts the fleet will grow to 8,830 aircraft in 2031. Therefore, the North American fleet is estimated to grow by 2,180 aircraft.
But how many pilots does that fleet growth represent? To answer that question, I surveyed six major U.S. airlines: American, Delta, United, US Airways, Southwest, and Jetblue. For each carrier, I looked for two pieces of data for the 2002-2011 time period: the number of pilots employed and the number of operating aircraft. After collecting that data, I calculated the average pilot-to-aircraft ratio for that time period, and discovered that, on average, those six major airlines employ roughly 13 pilots per aircraft that they operate. The standard deviation, a measure of the dispersion of the data, was 1.6, indicating that the numbers were close together.
Now, with an estimate of the number of pilots employed per aircraft operated and an estimate of fleet growth in North America, we can roughly calculate how many pilots are needed for growth. Multiplying 13 pilots per aircraft by the growth of 2,180 aircraft gives us 28,340 pilots. We are not done yet though. Next, we must look at the number of pilot retirements.
Luckily for me, I found some data for mandatory annual pilot retirements among some major U.S. airlines: American, Alaska, Delta, United, US Airways, and FedEx. I say that they are mandatory retirements because airline pilots are required to retire by age 65 in the United States. While this data does not paint the complete picture of pilot retirements in North America, it does give us a really good idea and can be used at least as a benchmark. On the right, Figure 3 compiles that information, showing that mandatory retirements are expected to rise very quickly and reach their peak around 2024. The total number of mandatory retirements for the 2012-2031 period is 35,755 pilots according to this data.
Now that we have an estimate for the number of “new pilots” and “replacements pilots”, all we have to do now is add the two together to get our estimated total pilot demand. Simple addition (28,340+35,755) yields a value of 64,095 pilots.
So how does that compare to Boeing’s forecast? In Figure 1, you can see that Boeing predicts a demand of about 69,000 pilots in North America for the next 20 years. That is pretty close to my estimate. Also, considering that my analysis did not take into account pilot retirements in Canada and that the data I used for the United States was incomplete (although it does give us a good benchmark), I would say that Boeing’s forecast is completely plausible. Furthermore, my analysis was completed with mostly independent data, except for the use of Boeing’s fleet forecast to estimate the number of “new pilots”.