A lot has changed since the late 1990s when Dover logged 250 flight hours, earned his commercial pilot certificate and started flying a small plane for a regional cargo carrier based out of Florida, "flying blood, piss and checks around at night." He's since moved up to a major carrier, and now pilots widebody freighters around the world. But the pool of young pilots waiting to replace him is drying up. No pilots means planes can’t fly, and that's a looming problem for the air cargo business at the dawn of the e-commerce era.
Regional carriers in North America have started performing triage, reducing schedules and cutting routes, but there’s no end in sight. In fact, it’s about to get worse. A 2013 investigation, sponsored by the University of North Dakota (UND), projected that 45,000 pilots will retire by 2033, more than twice the 18,000 regional pilots in service at the time. Each year, fewer pilots are moving up the ladder, and all the while, demand for passenger and cargo services keeps rising.
America’s pilot shortage is a slow-burning crisis that has the potential to disrupt the national economy and undercut growing sectors like e-commerce. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimated that the U.S. airline industry contributes more than $1.3tr to the national economy, or 5.2 percent of the country’s GDP.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.