How many flights do pilots fly in a day?
A nationwide pilot shortage is straining air travel
Until last summer, Ashley Montano had never flown. Now she was preparing to land a small plane with three passengers after a previous touch-and-go that had been rough.
“The plane is a bit heavy, so give it just a little more power to make a smooth landing,” flight instructor Jason Fink told her.
There was the tiniest of bounces as the plane’s nose came down, then a smooth touchdown and taxi in to end Montano’s training flight late last year at a United Airlines school in the Arizona desert.
On the ground, Montano was happy with her progress. “You guys were my first real passengers!” she gushed to a reporter and video journalist who had been in the rear seats.
Montano hopes that in a few years she will be flying airline jets and carrying many more passengers. If she does, she’ll be helping solve a crucial problem facing the industry: not enough pilots.
Airlines have complained about a shortage for several years, but they made it worse during the pandemic by encouraging pilots to take early retirement when air travel collapsed in 2020. Helane Becker, an analyst for Cowen who has tracked the issue closely, estimates that 10,000 pilots have left the field since then.
Meanwhile, airlines have been in a hiring frenzy that is likely to continue for several years as the carriers replace pilots who reach the federal mandatory retirement age of 65.
The government estimates that there will be about 18,000 openings per year for airline and commercial pilots this decade, with many of those replacing retirees. However, the Federal Aviation Administration issued on average only half that number of pilot licenses from 2017 through 2021.
Private forecasts are dire too. Consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that despite efforts to close the gap, airlines in North America will face a shortage of nearly 30,000 pilots by 2032. The supply of new pilots will grow, but not enough to offset a continuing wave of retirements, the consultant says.
There is cause for hope, however. Last year, the FAA issued 9,588 airline transport licenses — the type needed to fly for an airline. That topped even the recent peak of 9,520 in 2016.
The key question is whether that pace can be maintained. Some of last year’s spurt might have been catch-up from low numbers in 2020 and 2021, which were held down by the pandemic.
“The airlines are doing their best to move things along, but it’s an uphill slog,” Becker said.
Southwest Airlines has more than 700 planes but parks 40 to 45 of them each day because it lacks pilots to fly them, Chief Executive Bob Jordan said at a recent media event. That amounts to more than 200 flights a day or up to 8% of the Dallas-based airline’s flying. Southwest expects to hire 2,250 pilots this year after adding about 1,200 last year, mostly by drawing from smaller airlines.
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United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says the lack of pilots will continue to prevent airlines from expanding as much as they would like to take advantage of strong travel demand.
“Pilots are and will remain a significant constraint on capacity,” he said during an earnings call last month.
Kirby figures that his airline, American, Delta and Southwest combined will hire about 8,000 pilots this year, up from the normal 6,000 to 7,000.
The pilot shortage is most severe at smaller carriers that don’t pay as well and serve as steppingstones to the big airlines. Many of them operate regional flights under the names of American Eagle, United Express and Delta Connection.
Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Assn., says those carriers have parked more than 400 planes for lack of pilots, “and air service is collapsing as a result.” Black estimates that regional airlines are short by 8,000 pilots and the trade group says a dozen smaller cities have lost all air service — about 50 more have lost half or more of their flights — despite the broad rise in travel demand.
If a pilot calls in sick, often there is no one immediately available to replace them, and that is leaving tens of thousands of travelers stranded. The lack of pilots contributed to a 52% increase in flight cancellations last year compared with 2021, although it is unclear how much of that was also related to weather and air traffic congestion.
The shortage is giving pilot unions leverage in contract negotiations that were paused by the onset of the pandemic. New contracts are certain to include hefty pay raises that will drive up costs for airlines.
Delta pilots are voting on a contract that their union says would raise pay by more than 30% over four years. If ratified, it probably would become the model for deals with pilots at American, United and Southwest.
The median annual pay for U.S. airline pilots last year topped $200,000, according to the Labor Department, and was probably much higher at the biggest airlines.
The pilot shortage started even before the pandemic. Over the last decade or two, industry officials warned it was coming as travel boomed and thousands of U.S. pilots approached mandatory retirement age. The Federal Aviation Administration raised that age from 60 to 65 in 2007, which pushed the problem off for a few years.
For decades, airlines enjoyed an ample supply of pilots, most of whom came out of the military fully trained and with extensive experience, but the military has its own shortage.
The Air Force said it had a shortfall of about 1,900 pilots at the end of September. It is trying to increase retention and the training of new pilots after producing nearly 1,300 in the previous 12 months.
Not everyone agrees, however, that there is a shortage. The Air Line Pilots Assn., the largest union of pilots in North America, says that over the last decade, airlines hired only about half of the people who received FAA licenses that let them fly airliners.
The union argues that airlines are hyping a shortage narrative to water down qualification standards and hire inexperienced fliers at lower pay. It says that airlines should increase pay to attract more applicants.
That is beginning to happen at regional airlines — the smaller carriers that handle flights for American Eagle, United Express, Delta Connection and Alaska Airlines’ Horizon Air subsidiary. Three of American’s regional affiliates recently announced that $100,000 bonuses would be offered to some new pilots.
Several U.S. airlines have started their own training programs or partnered with flight schools to ensure a pipeline of future pilots that would be more diverse. Less than 4% of current airline pilots are Black; less than 5% are women.
“Even though I saw my dad fly planes, saw my brother fly planes, I never saw a woman fly planes,” said Sara McCauley, a student at United’s Aviate Academy who hopes to follow her father and fly for United. “The world is going to change, and aviation will be more inclusive.”
Tuition for flying schools and the cost of flight time are not cheap. Reaching 1,500 hours of required flight time is often estimated to cost between $70,000 and $100,000.
Aviate charges $71,250, and when students are done they need to find work as a flight instructor to build enough hours to get hired by a regional airline.
Montano, who has two degrees in criminology, left her job analyzing prison-sentencing data and took out a loan to attend Aviate.
“I saw that as a great investment in my future,” she said. “I absolutely think it will pay off.”
A Day in the Life of a Regional Pilot
A Day in the Life of a Regional Pilot
Capt. Justin Dahan, CRJ-200/700/900
My name is Justin Dahan, and I am a captain for a regional airline in the United States. I’m based in Charlotte, N.C. (KCLT), and I fly the Bombardier CRJ-200, CRJ-700, and CRJ-900. The following is a day in the life at my regional airline.
I was flying a three-day trip, which means I leave home on the first day and return home on the third day. I am currently on day two of the trip, flying four legs on the CRJ-700, starting in Charlottesville, Va. (CHO), and ending in Greensboro, N.C. (GSO).
At the end of day one, my crew and I arrived at the hotel in Charlottesville and determined our van time for the next day. The hotel had our van scheduled for 1:30 p.m., and my show time at the airport was 1:49 p.m. At my airline, “show time” is 45 minutes before scheduled departure time.
The following morning, I wake up, shower, and go about my morning routine, leaving plenty of time until I have to meet the van. I take this opportunity to get a bite to eat at a restaurant across the street with a fellow crewmember. After lunch, I repack my bags, put on my uniform, and head downstairs to meet the crew for the van. We board the van and make our way to the airport.
Once we arrive at the airport, we go through security, head to the gate, and are told the airplane is not yet there, as we are actually a few minutes early. I take this opportunity to review my paperwork and the weather, and it seems like a beautiful day for flying!
Once the airplane arrives and the passengers get off, we swap with the other crew. The crew that brought the aircraft in will now head to the hotel for the overnight. One of the crewmembers onboard introduces himself. He is a check airman, and I am told that I am getting a line check today. Every year, captains have to receive a line check—an observation of us out flying a regular flight—to ensure we are operating safely and correctly. This means that he will sit in the jumpseat (the extra seat in the cockpit) to observe the flight to Charlotte. My crew and I get the airplane ready, and as we are boarding, the ground crew informs of us that something appears broken in the cargo compartment. We give maintenance a call to get it squared away and depart CHO on time. Upon landing in Charlotte, we see that we are changing airplanes for the rest of our three legs that day. This is called a plane swap. The check airman informs me that I passed my line check!
My crew and I gather our belongings, shut down the airplane, and change to a different airplane. We repeat the preflight inspections on this new plane and board up for a round trip to Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. (VPS). We fly down to VPS, enjoying the beautiful afternoon for flying, and are treated to spectacular military activity down in VPS, as it is a military base. We deplane, board back up, and head back to Charlotte.
Once landing in Charlotte we have over 90 minutes until our next flight to our overnight in Greensboro, N.C. (GSO). My crew and I take this opportunity to eat dinner, as we won’t arrive to our destination until just prior to midnight. Once we are 30 minutes away from departure time, the gate agent begins boarding the flight. After boarding, we depart the gate, taxi to the runway, and fly the quick 72-mile flight to GSO. Upon arrival at the gate, we deplane, and the first officer does an external check of the airplane to make sure nothing is broken that needs to be fixed for the next morning, while I shut down the plane. As we gather our bags, I call the hotel to ask for the van to come pick us up.
Once we get outside, we load up the hotel van and drive about 15 minutes to our overnight hotel. At the hotel, we sign in, get our rooms, and set the van time for the next morning for our departure to the airport. As it’s now 11:55 p.m., once I get back to my room, I wind down, get ready for bed, and plan to do it all again the next day! That will be the last day of our trip, which means I will be home that day.
On this second day of my three-day trip, I was on duty (the amount of time I was at work that day) for 9 hours and 46 minutes (from 1:49 p.m. until 11:35 p.m.), and I logged 5 hours and 32 minutes of flight time over four flights. At my airline, we fly anywhere from one to six flights in a day, but two to five flights is the average. This was an enjoyable day of flying with good weather, good crewmembers, and a good amount of time in the air.
We hope you enjoyed this insight into what a typical day in the life of a regional pilot can be. If you have any questions, please contact ALPA’s Education Committee.
Top 10 Questions Pilots Get Asked
If you’ve ever had the chance to talk to a pilot, chances are you’ve attempted to pick their brain about flying. Regardless of how often you fly, the majority of people you meet today have a shared curiosity for all things air travel.
We asked the general public to share their top airline questions with us. From smart to funny, passengers asked it all! Here are the top 10 questions pilots get asked, with responses from a real-life commercial pilot!
1- Do pilots nap while in the air?
“Yes and No. Typically US pilots are not allowed to sleep while in the cockpit. All pilots are assumed to be alert and diligent while at the controls at 38,000 ft. In fact, some aircraft have alarms that will sound if a control or switch is not touched frequently enough, ensuring that the crew did not fall asleep. On long international flights, there are additional pilots onboard that can relieve a pilot in flight. These augmented crews allow pilots on flights typically longer then 8 hours in duration, the opportunity to go to a spare seat or bunk and grab some shut-eye during flight. It should be noted however, that different countries have different rules. Some foreign airlines do allow pilots to take controlled naps under very strict rules and guidelines while in the air.”
2- Do pilots ever get scared?
“Scared is not the proper word; concerned or heightened awareness might better describe a pilot’s feelings on certain occasions. Pilots are placed in highly stressful situations from early on in flight training. They are trained to perform in situations varying from simulated fires, engine failures, rapid decompression, and strong wind shears, just to name a few. The training itself is designed to condition the pilot to be able to react to the most difficult inflight emergency calmly and rationally. In some ways, fear is conditioned out of the airline pilot, making him or her the cool, calm professional you see strolling around airline terminals worldwide today.”
3- Do crewmembers ever “hook-up”?
“Long overnights in places like Paris, London, New York, Las Vegas do provide the opportunity for pilots and flight attendants to mingle and fraternize. Combine that with good food, beautiful scenery, world-class resorts, and you now have a beautiful backdrop where on occasion can lead to romance in the skies. That being said, most airline crews are professionals who are only looking to perform their job duties and fly the public safely from point A to point B. They want to do their job, see a bit of the world, and then return home safely to their families. Some airlines have taken additional steps however, putting pilots and flight attendants up in separate hotels on their overnights, alleviating the chance of any possible ‘wrongdoing’ between flight crews.”
4- Do Captain’s and First Officers eat different meals to avoid food poisoning?
“In the classic 1980s movie Airplane!, the crew is stricken with food poisoning as they all ate the same fish dinner. In real-life however, all airline food is handled under very strict guidelines making food poisoning very, very rare. But most pilot crew meals are never the same. This is more likely due to the tastes of the individual rather then for the concerns over possible food poisoning.”
5- How much money do pilots make? Are pilots underpaid?
“Pilots like any other employee (yourself included) would probably gladly take more money. The amount a pilot makes depends on their position (Captain vs. First Officer), Aircraft Type (EMB-190, 737, Airbus 340), company longevity, and the type of airline (Legacy, Major, Regional) they work for. All these factors go into determining the pilots pay.
At the low end of the pay scale, a new-hire regional airline First Officer might only make around 25-30K a year. While at the higher end, a senior Legacy 777 Captain might make upwards of 300k a year. Overall, your average pilot is probably making in the 120K range, but again, this is all dependent of where the individual pilot falls within each of those categories.”
6- Are pilots overworked and tired? How many hours can a pilot fly per day?
“Rules that govern rest for pilots in the United States have recently gone thru a major overhaul. Designed to take into affect a persons Circadian Rhythms, which is the human bodies natural highs and lows thru the day, the new rules are designed to limit pilot fatigue. In fact, if a pilot is fatigued, several airlines have policies in affect that allow them to call in fatigued with no threat of disciplinary action from the company, as long as they submit the proper report. This is all in an effort to keep you the traveller safe. As a general rule, pilots can fly about 8 hours a day and be on duty around 12 hours, but there are exceptions to both these times.”
7- Is flying safe? Are bigger planes safer then smaller planes?
“Without a doubt flying is the safest mode of transportation in the world! Aircrafts are designed to a very strict and exact standard. Every aspect of air travel is governed by extremely precise rules that must be followed to the letter. Airlines incur very steep fines even for the smallest and most innocent of documentation errors, much less blatant and non-compliant ones. Airline crews are highly-trained and competent, ensuring the highest levels of safety aboard any flight.
All transport-category airplanes (airliners basically) must have the same level of safety. A 50-seat regional jet by-enlarge has the same type of safety equipment and system redundancies as that of a larger airliner. The Federal Aviation Administration that governs air travel operates under the system of ‘One Level of Safety’. This means all airlines and airplanes that fly the public around, must conform to the highest levels of safety and standards.”
8- How much training do pilots receive?
“Even before a pilot ever sets foot into an airline cockpit, they have probably undergone several years of training in either the military or civilian flight schools (sometimes both). Once hired by an airline, pilots must go through several weeks of training in order to learn the specifics of how that airline operates, known as ‘Operational Specifications’ (Opsecs), followed by simulated training on the particular airplane in which they are going to fly. Once this process is complete, pilots are then given a ‘check-ride’ on a simulator, which is conducted by either a FAA examiner or a company pilot that is trained to give these types of flight check events.
Following all this training, pilots can then begin flying on the actual airplane. This phase is called IOE (Initial Operating Experience), in which pilots fly on revenue flights under the watchful eye of a Line Check Airman, who is specifically trained to fly with pilots that are new to the airline or that particular airplane. This procedure is repeated every time a pilot goes to a new airplane or even a new seat (First Officer to Captain). Every pilot regardless of his or her experience must also go through yearly training. Here they undergo hours of classroom training, computer based instruction, and airplane simulator flying, ensuring that they are up-to-date with the most recent flight guidelines.”
9- How does the auto-pilot work? Do all planes use this?
“Autopilot works by using the airplanes internal sensors and computers to fly the airplane while pilots monitor the airplanes performance. This provides an extra level of safety by releasing the pilots from the sometimes-tedious process of physically hand-flying the airplane, and allowing them to focus on other tasks such as weather, turbulence, Air Traffic Control communications, etc. All airliners with over 19-seats have some type of autopilot. In larger airplanes, additional features exist like auto-land functions, which allow the airplane to execute an approach and landing in low visibility conditions without the pilot having to touch the controls.”
10- What are the advantages being a pilot?
“We get to do what we love, and that is fly. We meet so many wonderful people along the way, and experience so many new destinations. Plus, it’s always a sunny day at work when you’re a pilot!”
Have an additional question for our pilots? Share your questions below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.