The US domestic market has, of course, been making a robust recovery throughout 2021, and this has been reflected in demand for flight crew. While some pilots in other parts of the world are still struggling to find work after being laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, that has not been the case in the USA, where the spectre of pilot shortages has re-emerged.
United Airlines this week announced it is cutting regional routes because some of its partner airlines cannot find crew. This is bad news for passengers, but some pilots may feel a certain schadenfreude at the prospect of commuter airlines that have long got off with paying low wages to rookie aviators desperate to build their flight hours having to shell out more to lure recruits.
While this may lead to a rethink in the way pilots are rewarded, especially at the start of their careers, there has also been debate this week about what structural changes the recovery from the pandemic will mean for travel patterns. Pent-up demand has seen a surge in leisure trips and family visits, but a big question mark remains around whether business travel will come back as before.
American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker is seeing behaviors change. Although corporations – which traditionally supplied carriers with their frequent-flyers – are holding back, this has not been the case with small businesses, he says. Desperate to resume face-to-face meetings, and less constrained by bureaucratic travel policies, they are returning to the skies at a far faster rate.
This will mean airlines having to rethink the way they schedule flights, believes Parker. Pre-pandemic, business travellers tended to depart on Sundays and return at the end of the week. But with the rise of video conferencing, there is less need for longer work trips. At the same time, nimble companies are looking to take advantage of cheaper fares to travel outside traditional peaks.
Meanwhile, Sir Tim Clark, boss of Emirates Airline is more confident that travel demand will rebound in line with the removal of international border restrictions. Although the Dubai carrier’s latest six-monthly figures to 30 September show passenger numbers still well down on 2019, they are four times higher than in the corresponding period in 2020.
Clark says that – while the Delta variant has slowed recovery – confidence among passengers is high and a full bounce-back will not be too long in happening, especially once countries in Asia-Pacific begin relaxing their travel rules. He describes a “bow-wave of demand that has been depressed for two years”, and predicts that, by mid-2022, Emirates will have returned its full fleet to service.
However, what if a lot of these aircraft were being flown by just one pilot, rather than two? Single-crew cockpits may be a long way off in the commercial airliner segment, but could freighters be an exception? At this week’s Dubai Airshow, Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury suggested that the company’s new A350F would be an ideal platform to trial the feasibility of single-pilot operations.
European safety regulator EASA has already launched a study into single-pilot cockpits, the idea being that if the concept is proven on cargo transports it could be transferred to passenger aircraft. But it remains controversial, especially with pilot unions who point to examples of where, despite all the automation of a modern flight deck, having two crew has almost certainly avoided an accident.
It does feel though like something that will come to pass at some point, just as the days of having flight engineers and navigators sitting behind the pilots have long vanished. The upside for anyone starting out in the profession now, however, might be that the growth in the global fleet over the next four decades or so will more than compensate for a halving of the number of pilots per cockpit.
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