Airbus predicts demand for 40,000 mainline jets over next 20 years, but do we have enough pilots to fly them?

We have all sniggered when Otto, the inflatable autopilot is deployed in the film Airplane!, however the idea of unmanned flight decks is certainly a development many believe we will see in the future. This technological advancement could actually overcome one of the biggest issues that could impact the natural growth of the air transport industry.

In its latest market forecast for the 20 year period between 2017 and 2036, Airbus says increasing numbers of first time flyers, rising disposable income spent on air travel, expanding tourism, industry liberalisation, new routes and evolving airline business models are driving a need for 34,170 new passenger and 730 new freighter aircraft worth a combined total of US$5.3 trillion.

The manufacturer predicts traffic is set to grow at 4.4% per year with over 70% of the new units being single aisle airliners to meet enhanced point-to-point connectivity – 60% for growth and 40% for replacement of less fuel efficient aircraft. But, with pilot numbers already reaching saturation point, the question is where will we find the additional 500,000+ new pilots that will be required to fly the new equipment?

Airbus says a doubling in the commercial fleet over the next 20 years sees a need for 530,000 new pilots and 550,000 new maintenance engineers. It has expanded its global network of training locations from five to 16 in the space of three years, but that may not be enough to meet the required run rate to allow supply to keep up with demand.

Speaking to The Blue Swan Daily at the recent IATA AGM in Cancun, Mexico, Imtiaz Ahmad, director OEM operations at CAE, a global leader in training for the civil aviation, defence and security, and healthcare markets, suggested that a lack of flight crews could become one of the biggest hurdles to air transport growth and had influenced the company to release a global pilot demand study at the forthcoming Paris Air Show later this month.

“We feel that as a respected provider we are well placed to provide an insight into a challenge for the industry,” he said, and noted that while the “recognition of a pilot demand shortfall” from an “unprecedented demand level” for new airliners is there, the “pathway to resolution still remains a work in progress”. “Never has there been this level of pilot demand. The industry faces a real challenge to build a pipeline to crew future aircraft demand,” he added.

Air traffic growth is highest in emerging markets such as China, India, the rest of Asia and Latin America and almost double the 3.2% per year growth forecast in mature markets such as North America and Western Europe. Emerging markets currently home to 6.4 billion of the world’s 7.4 billion population will account for nearly 50% of the world’s private consumption by 2036, says Airbus.

“Air travel is remarkably resilient to external shocks and doubles every 15 years,” says John Leahy, chief operating officer – customers, Airbus Commercial Aircraft. “Asia Pacific continues to be an engine for growth, with domestic China to become the world’s largest market. Disposable incomes are growing and in emerging economies the number of people taking a flight will nearly triple between now and 2036.”

Over the next 20 years Asia Pacific is set to take 41% of new deliveries, followed by Europe with 20% and North America at 16%, according to the latest version of the annual Airbus report. Middle class numbers will almost double to nearly five billion as wealth creation makes aviation even more accessible particularly in emerging economies where spending on air travel services is set to double.