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If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that supply chains are both complex and taken for granted. The sight of hundreds of container ships parked outside Long Beach in 2020 and mirrored by Shanghai in 2022.

Yet, even as shipping logjams are cleared, the blockage simply moves downstream to trucking or delivery as explanations are far more complex than a simple picture of idling container ships. Our desire to ascribe a simple cause to shortages is quite human. There is no simple cause – nor a simple solution.

Much is the same with the U.S. pilot supply. With a complex chain of training, cost, and career progression, the desire to attach a singular cause to the problem afflicting airlines today is no less present.

Related: A very real pilot shortage threatens to upend the U.S. airline recovery

Indeed, even whether a shortage exists at all remains a point of contention (albeit a diminishing one as data continues to overwhelm motivated messaging). Chief executive of United Airlines, Scott Kirby recently acknowledged the problem saying “The pilot shortage for the industry is real and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plan because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years.”

Yet, Ed Bastian, Kirby’s counterpart at Delta Air Lines, recently commented that the airline is “not having any problem at all at Delta hiring and getting great pools of candidates.” This view was shared by Spirit Airlines CEO Ted Christie, saying the “supply and demand will work itself out.”

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has long categorized the shortfall as a “myth”, rather pointing to a shortage of pay rather than pilots. Competing airline union Allied Pilots Association acknowledges the current shortage but blames airline decisions during the pandemic: “The crisis we see today is because demand is coming in so quickly and management didn’t plan for it. Management is failing to connect the pilots to the airlines.”

Simultaneously, the regional airlines have been warning for years that a shortage could have a prolonged impact on all airlines and the economy. Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways, told congress, “It is not just regional airlines and the smallest markets they serve that face a pilot shortage crisis; the pilot shortage is a threat to air carriers large and small and to our nation’s economy overall.” That was April 2014.

Confusion reigns. What exactly is happening with the pilot shortage? Is it a systemic problem of recruitment as the regional airlines claim? A problem of transitory leadership as the unions claim? Or not a problem as Delta and Spirit claim?

The answer is yes – all are true.

This TAC Analysis is a nuanced and comprehensive two-part look at the current pilot shortage in the United States. In this first part, we examine the scarcity and how seemingly conflicting claims can all be correct, yet far from conclusive. In the second part we address the notion of a shortage in pilot pay and forecast the changes the shortage will bring in 2023 and beyond.

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Courtney Miller is Managing Director of Analysis for The Air Current. Miller most recently spent 10-years with Bombardier Aerospace, serving as director, North America sales for the company’s commercial aircraft line and led airline marketing and analysis for the western hemisphere for airlines in North and South America and the community of global aircraft lessors. Miller is also founder of visualapproach.io, where he merged industry history and analysis with insightful and beautiful data visualization to illustrate contemporary trends. Miller is a 3,000-hour U.S. airline pilot and began his career flying for U.S. regional airline Comair. He holds a Masters of Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle University and a Bachelors of Science in Aviation Technology from Purdue University. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Metroplex.

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