Monday, April 30, 2012

U.S. exports pilots to the world

An economic analysis by the Wall St. Journal reports that large U.S. companies are adding jobs abroad much faster than in the U.S. According to the report, the number of workers employed by U.S. companies worldwide was up 7.7 percent from two years earlier. The domestic employment for the same period was up only 3.1 percent. Employment abroad increased by more than double that of domestic hiring. The same trend is evident in pilot hiring as well.

The United States has long been the destination of flight students from around the world. Lower taxes, cheaper fuel, and no aviation user fees make it attractive for prospective pilots from other parts of the world to come to the U.S. for training. In many cases, they then return to their home countries to earn their domestic licenses on the basis of training completed in the U.S. or FAA pilot licenses earned here. In other cases, such as those who attend foreign airline training courses at schools in the United States, they can even be issued a foreign license while training in the U.S.

Now the United States is exporting many of its home-grown pilots as well. The recession and stagnant economy have hit domestic aviation hard. Many companies have eliminated their corporate airplanes and flight departments amid criticism by members of the Obama Administration. Nearly all major U.S. airlines have been in bankruptcy since 2001 and most still have pilots on furlough.

Other than Southwest and Spirit, the only U.S. airlines that are currently hiring are regional feeder companies such as Express Jet and Go Jet. These companies operate regional jets under code share for legacy airlines like Delta and United. Regional airline jobs are entry level positions that are typically considered to be the airline equivalent of “burger-flipper” jobs.

Private aviation in the U.S. is similarly depressed. No statistics are available for unemployment numbers for pilots, but Aviation International News reported last week that revised figures for 2011 business jet sales were down 7.9 percent from 2010. This statistic explains the meager number of new pilot jobs at domestic companies.

There are a small number of openings in corporate flight departments and charter companies, but a survey of aviation job search websites such as and shows that approximately half of the pilot jobs listed are in foreign countries. In addition to the total number of job postings, most jobs listed for American companies are single openings. In contrast, job listings abroad often call for a large number of new hires. This often reflects a continuing need for expatriate pilots to staff growing foreign airlines and flight departments.

Many of the posted jobs are in the emerging market of China, where the government is easing regulations on aircraft ownership and operation. According to the Chinese consulate in Chicago, there are currently only 132 registered private aircraft in the People’s Republic, but that number is projected to grow to between 500 and 1,000 planes in the next five years. Small wonder then that U.S. aircraft manufacturers such as Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, and Gulfstream are establishing ties to China.

In addition to jobs flying corporate jets, there are also many openings for pilots who are trained to fly airliners. Often these jobs are in China as well, although many are also found in the Middle East, India, and occasionally in Africa and Europe. There are many openings for pilots qualified on heavy airliners like the Airbus A320, the A340, the MD-11, the Boeing 767 and the 737. Frequently, there are also jobs listed for pilots of regional airliners such as the Canadair Regional Jet and the Embraer Regional Jet, as well as turboprop airliners like the Dash 8 and the Beech 1900.

In addition to a shortage of jobs in the United States, a loss of prestige for the pilot profession and concessions granted by unions during bankruptcy may also factor into the decisions of many pilots to look for work abroad. Most airline workers have lost their pensions while taking pay cuts on their current salaries as well. At the same time, many are required to work more hours each month as companies downsize.

The trend may continue. According to USA Today, Boeing forecasts a need for almost 500,000 pilots by 2029, an average of more than 23,000 per year. Only about 20 percent of these new jobs are forecast to be in North America, however. As many as 40 percent will be found in Asia and the Pacific Rim, where many of the openings are today.

There is one bright spot for pilots who are looking for aviation jobs in the United States, however. In 2007, the FAA increased the retirement age for airline pilots from age 60 to 65. Many of the senior airline pilots who benefitted from the extra five years of work are now nearing their mandatory final flights. Beginning this year, pilot retirements at the U.S. legacy airlines are set to dramatically increase in a cycle that may last for decades. This means that as long as the airlines are not downsizing due to a shrinking economy, they should be looking for a lot of pilots.

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