The aviation industry has been facing a serious shortage of skilled professionals for a long time, but it is only in the past few years that the issue has reached worrying, unprecedented levels.
Whether they are on strike due to low salaries, discouraged by increasingly challenging training courses or attracted by more competitive markets, airport and aircraft workers are decreasing in number, often leading to disruption in flights and limited service across the world.
Figures from Boeing’s Pilot and Technician Outlook 2018-2037 suggest the situation could even get worse if not urgently tackled. According to the company’s estimates, the industry will need two million new commercial airline pilots, maintenance technicians and cabin crew members over the next 20 years.
Here’s a look at where these shortages have been hitting hardest and how they’re affecting the industry and passengers.
A widespread deficit of pilots across all continents has affected the sector particularly in recent years, with cases of pilot shortages regularly appearing on the news.
For example, in India local airline Jet Airways has been grounded since April, when staff went on strike for not being paid their wages.
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A similar crisis hit Scotland earlier this year. Here, Flybe blamed a series of cancelled or delayed flights on its shortage of pilots. In Japan, Jetstar Japan cancelled 70 flights for the same reason.
With Boeing’s report predicting some 635,000 pilots will be needed for commercial lines alone over the next two decades, companies are now working to launch new and better training schemes that would allow them to source workforce locally instead of relying on international markets.
Cabin crew shortages happen almost as often – and often together with – pilot shortages due to low salaries, competition and a slow generational turnover.
In March this year, Air India was forced to cancel ten flights as a result of a substantial cabin crew shortage that left it in need for an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 workers.
Emirates faced a similar fate in 2018, as Reuters reported a series of resignations and workforce constraints were affecting services throughout the line.
Data published by aviationpros.com in 2016 seem to support this trend, suggesting 85% of surveyed airlines were looking to hire more staff, most of which was cabin crew.
Engineers and mechanics
With air traffic poised for a huge growth over the next couple of decades and customer expectations increasing as a result, the role of aviation engineers and aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) will become more and more indispensable.
Yet several countries have recently witnessed a radical drop in the market, making the need for new skilled technicians a high priority for the aviation sector.
Last year, this issue was brought up in the UK by Baroness Liz Sugg – at the time working as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport – who announced that the government is working on a strategy to attract more qualified engineers to aviation.
Similarly, recent reports in the US have estimated the country will have a deficit of 15,000 certified AMTs by 2027 – a worrying prospect considering that the global fleet size is expected to grow by 40% over the next decade.
According to Boeing’s research, maintenance personnel will be particularly required in the Asia Pacific region and North America, with global demand reaching approximately 754,000 technicians.
Air traffic controllers
A rising problem in both the US and Europe, the scarce availability of air traffic control staff has long been the cause of disruption in these areas, often during peak seasons.
In May this year, Airlines for Europe managing director Thomas Reynaert warned that striking air traffic controllers in France and throughout the continent will likely cause disruption over the summer. This has already meant an increase in en-route delays by almost 40% in April compared to March.
Meanwhile, several inbound and outbound flights were cancelled at New York’s La Guardia airport in January, as air traffic controllers and other federal aviation employees took on sick leave during the government shutdown. Similar cases were registered in Florida and Washington DC over the same period.
A shortage of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers spread across the US in January this year, sending the local aviation authorities into a state of chaos.
Protesting against the government shutdown, which led to massive delays in salary payments, TSA officers took to the streets and their workplaces to protest, which led to severe disruption throughout the country.
While the issue has now been tackled in some areas, it is nowhere near sorted at Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport. Here, a growing shortage of TSA screening officers is increasingly exposing passenger to safety risks, with Sea-Tac’s managing director Lance Lyttle explaining to the US Congress in May that the airport is losing staff almost as fast as it hires them.