Aviation industry is short 32,000 pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers – as Pete Buttigieg says his office is actively investigating airlines for ‘unrealistic scheduling’
- Aviation experts predict Americans may face another decade of persistent flight cancelations and delays amid ongoing staffing shortages
- The industry is currently short about 32,000 commercial pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers, according to an analysis by CBS News
- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says his office is now investigating airlines for ‘unrealistic scheduling’
Americans may face another decade of persistent flight cancelations and delays amid a desperate staffing crisis.
The industry is currently short about 32,000 commercial pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers, according to analysis by CBS News.
Airlines have struggled to keep up with a post-COVID travel surge, which has caused major travel disruptions over the past two years.
And experts say the trend is likely to continue, as it takes years to train airline professionals — and because pilots must retire by law at the age of 65 and air traffic controllers at 56.
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says his office is now investigating airlines for ‘unrealistic scheduling,’ or listing more flights than carriers can safely accommodate.
Airlines had already been struggling to retain employees for years before the COVID pandemic hit, but the problem became significantly worse in the aftermath, when airlines drastically cut back their routes and laid off thousands of workers.
Many of those who remained decided to seize the opportunity to take an early retirement or leave the industry altogether.
Then when worldwide travel resumed as normal in 2022 and 2023, the airlines found themselves without enough employees to meet the pent-up demand.
The industry is now short about 17,000 pilots, and Wichita State University emeritus professor Dean Headley — who publishes the annual Airline Quality Ratings — said airlines can only train about 1,500 to 1,800 pilots each year.
Training a pilot can also take two years or longer, and cost more than $100,000.
At the same time, some current pilots will be forced to retire when they hit the age of 65.
Because of that mandatory retirement, aviation consultant Oliver Wyman predicts the industry will be short 24,000 pilots by 2026 before the gap slowly closes.
Headley also said, ‘Some of the predictions I’m hearing is that the pilot shortage won’t be resolved until 2032 or something like that.’
A CBS News analysis of employee data also found that the aviation industry is short about 12,800 certified and trained mechanics.
Boeing estimates that the US alone will need 178,000 mechanics to meet the demand, and more than 600,000 worldwide.
‘This is the big unsung shortage that nobody talks about,’ said Kathleen Bangs, a spokeswoman for flight tracker FlightAware.
‘Most people don’t understand that about half of all airline maintenance is done overseas. So we outsource a lot of that maintenance, and I think it’s going to be challenging.
‘We have to figure out a way — how do we attract young people to become mechanics, which are critical, but also at the same time they’re outsourcing ore and more of their work?’
Proper training and certification can take 18 months to two years to complete, and Wyman says there will be a shortage of some 18,000 mechanics in the coming years.
The industry is also facing a shortage of about 3,000 fully-certified air traffic controllers, who are legally required to retire at the age of 56.
A June 21 report by the US Department of Transportation’s Inspector General revealed that in 20 of 26 critical control towers, staffing fell well below the Federal Aviation Administration’s own minimum 85 percent threshold — with one tower in New York City at only 54 percent of its staffing.
The staffing shortages have already caused major travel disruptions over the past two years.
A CBS News analysis of data provided by FlightAware found that the number of delays caused by airline issues jumped from 5.2 percent in 2018 to 7.6 percent in 2023.
The pressure has been especially evident in the days surrounding holidays, when many Americans travel to visit their loved ones.
In the days following Christmas and New Years thousands of flights were delayed across the United States amid the spread of the highly contagious Covid-19 Omicron variant.
Many pilots and flight attendants called in sick after testing positive for the virus or were forced to quarantine due to contact with someone who has the virus — leaving carriers with staffing shortages and forcing them to delay or cancel flights.
And over just four days last month, from June 24 through June 27, 31,850 flights were delayed — representing one-third of all flights nationwide.
Airlines also canceled another 6,346 scheduled flights, representing on in every 17 flights being canceled outright.
The number of delays during that time period was 25 percent higher than it was just one year prior, and when compared to the same period in 2019, the number of cancelations was up 374 percent.
United Airlines passengers suffered the most cancelations, leaving them stranded in airports and standing in long lines to rebook flights, with some saying they were forced to wait several days for their checked bags.
Several airlines have now pulled out of several markets.
In a letter to the US Senate Commerce Committee on June 21, the Regional Airline Association said airlines had left 73 markets since 2019 and 321 airports have lost some service.
According to its data, 61 airports lost more than half their flights, and 16 airports lost all their major commercial flights.
‘So people [who] are not at a major airport will find that their flight schedules have been reduced simply because they don’t have enough people to put in an airplane to fly it somewhere.’
Lawmakers have been pushing for the airlines and federal officials to do something about the crisis for more than a year now.
Last June, Sens. Edward J. Markey and Richard Blumenthal – who are part of the Senate Commerce Committee – wrote letters to the CEOs of 10 different airlines demanding corrective action.
They asked the CEOs to ‘take immediate action’ to reduce travel disruptions, and demanded information about how each airline decides which flights to cancel and the number of consumer refunds requested and granted.
Then in December, a bipartisan group of 34 state attorneys general wrote to leaders in Congress telling them that Buttigieg’s department had ‘failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse’ for an increasing number of flight delays and cancelations where passengers were not compensated.
The letter said state attorneys general have little authority to hold airlines accountable so without adequate action from the Department of Transportation (DoT), major airlines have been able to ‘mistreat’ customers.
‘Americans are justifiably frustrated that federal government agencies charged with overseeing airline consumer protection are unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable and to swiftly investigate complaints submitted to the Department of Transportation,’ the August letter states.
They suggested the Department of Transportation require airlines to advertise and sell only flights that they have adequate personnel to fly, and to perform regular audits of airlines to ensure compliance and impose fines on those that do not comply.
Buttigieg now says his office is actively investigating several airlines for its conduct, telling CBS News: ‘If an airline is knowingly flying an unrealistic schedule, there are going to be consequences.
‘We have active investigations underway right now with regard to that,’ he said.
‘We take that very seriously because when you sell a ticket to a paying customer an you make a profit off that, you better be ready to do everything in your power to service that ticket. And we’re also going to hold you responsible for what happens if you can’t,’ the Transportation Secretary warned.
His office confirmed that Southwest is among the carriers being investigated, but declined to name any other airlines involved in the probe or offer a timeline.
Southwest faced major backlash late last year, when it canceled 14,042 flights, representing over 80 percent of its flight schedule, due to software issues and a lack of staffing.
Desperate passengers were forced to sleep in terminals surrounded by growing mounds of lost luggage as the airline barred passengers from rebooking flights through December 31.
In a statement, Airlines-4-America, an association that represents seven of the nation’s largest carriers said the airlines have since ‘reduced their schedules to reflect current operating realities,’ adding that they are ‘hiring aggressively to make sure they have the right people in the right place at the right time.
‘US airlines recognize the importance of securing a pipeline of new employees — pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and others — and have established new pilot training programs, enhanced recruitment efforts and implemented programs to address financial hurdles,’ the statement read.