Is There Really an Airline Pilot Shortage? My Niece Is Interested in Becoming a Pilot

            By Captain Paul Miller

Flying through an East Coast hub airport recently in mid morning, I counted 35-40 regional jet passenger aircraft with American Airways paint schemes. In fact I was riding in one, with 89 fellow passengers, every seat being filled. We had two wonderfully, competent flight attendants and two professional airline pilots. The jet was a new machine, and appeared technologically up to snuff. I always try to look into the flight deck on my way in and out of the jet.

As we taxied to our parking gate at the regional jet wing of the terminal, I saw much larger American Airways passenger jets parked at other gates in the terminal, and counted about 35-40. These were Boeing 737s, 777s, 787s, and Airbus 319s, 320s, and 321s. They all looked fine; they were big commercial jets with the latest American Airways paint schemes, no doubt with the latest technology on board. It was a fine display of an airline’s modern commercial passenger jet fleet, serving the American flying public.

I was a lucky person that day; the weather was fine, the airline handled my bags well and the whole operation was on time. I and my fellow passengers were getting where we needed to go, safely and in comfort. I had bought a reasonably priced ticket, having planned out my travel months ago.  This was a good day. At the end of my journey, I got to spend time with family, especially my niece who one day hopes to be an airline pilot.

My mind got to thinking how much revenue was likely being generated that day by the ridership of me and my fellow passengers. I figured some passengers had paid a little more than me, and some had paid a little less than me, and counted one or two non-revenue airline flight crew passengers riding in the back. Mathematically I figured 88 seats were revenue generators. My ticket cost about $400, of which $100 was various taxes and fees, so about $300 went to the airline, meaning that the two flights on which I rode that morning generated about $26,400 each leg, or about $52,800 in total.

Then I thought, some of those 35-40 regional jets were smaller and carried 50 passengers. There were about an equal mix of 50 and 90 passenger jets at the regional gates at the terminal.  So five ninths of the $52,800 would be the revenue estimate for the smaller 50 passenger jets, giving the smaller jets a generated revenue estimate of about $29,333 for their flights. I totaled my estimates to see a ball park figure of what the flights at the terminal that morning were producing for American Airways, knowing that I was probably a ways off the mark, but at least my estimate was grounded in tangible numbers. So 20 times $52,800 for the 90 passenger jets, and 20 times $29,333 for the 50 passenger jets, came to $1,056,000 plus $586,666, or about $1,642,666 in total for the 40 smaller regional jets I saw sitting there. Seemed like pretty good numbers for the airline.

As I sat waiting for my outbound flight leg, I began thinking a previous flight I had taken about a month earlier. I flew two legs across the country on a plush new Boeing 737-900 and an Airbus 320, and treated myself to a first class seat. I had gotten a last minute upgrade deal and paid just a few hundred more to sit up front, but the luxury and pampering on the two longer flights was worth it. I arrived rested and ready for the day. What a great experience I had on American Airways with my more than 225 fellow passengers, with perhaps five non-revenue flight crew in the back. We had five wonderfully competent flight attendants and two professional airline pilots. As I like to do, I looked into the flight deck on the way in and out, and saw the latest technology. That day we all got where we needed to go, safely, comfortably, and on time. What a great airline system we, the flying public, had at our disposal.

The calculator in my brain again started adding up the passengers and ticket revenue, and just to keep the numbers comparable, I again chose $400 as the median seat ticket price on each of the legs, with $100 in taxes and fees, with the airline getting $300 per passenger per leg. So that led to $300 per passenger times 220 paying passengers for each legs, or about $66,000 per leg or $132,000 for the 440 paying passengers on both legs. Again these were just ball park estimates, but probably not far off. Then, as I counted 40 larger jets and multiplied by $132,000, my figure came to $5,280,000.  Wow, by flying the bigger jets, the airline was making more than three times (3.214) the revenue than the airline was making by flying regional jets, again with two professional pilots.  “That is why they get paid the big bucks”, I thought to myself.

But then a thought came to me, “Why are the airlines flying 50-90 passengers around in smaller regional with two professional pilots, when they could be flying 220 or more around in larger Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s, with the same number of professional pilots, two?”

Is there really a pilot shortage or are the airlines flying smaller numbers of passengers, using smaller jets when they could be flying much larger jets and hauling two to four times as many passengers with the same two pilots?

Admitted, I do not know everything about American Airways hub and spoke commercial passenger airline operations. I guess that every small-town regional airport probably does not generate 220 airline passengers four times a day, every day, like big city airports do. But why not stop along the way at one or two other small town regional airports and pick up the other folks, on the way to the big city hub airports, using the larger Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s with two professional pilots to fly 225 passengers?

Seems like you would need half to one fourth of the pilots to do it and that might go towards alleviating the pilot shortage for a while, at least until my teen age niece is old enough begin her airline career.

Published by Capt. Paul Miller

Aviation safety expert with 43 years in the sky

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