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Avionics and the North American Pilot Shortage: Who’s Going to Fly the Plane?

Aug 21, 2018
Norm Matheis, Canadian Regional Sales Manager

Norm Matheis, Canadian Regional Sales Manager

Norm is the Senior Regional Sales Manager for Canada for Universal Avionics. Previously, Norm held management and technical support roles at Canadian avionics shops, OEMs, and airlines. Norm is a graduate of the Centennial College Avionics Maintenance Specialist Program and holds an AME E license.

A recent piece in AVIONICS magazine told the story of an experiment with a group of young Avianca (Colombia) pilots. The young, non-native English-speaking, non-military pilots demonstrated in a 787 simulator temporarily modified with synthetic-vision displays. One goal was for them to learn to use synthetic vision to land the airplane under some stressful situations. Scenarios included the Boeing climbing out of Ecuador's Mariscal Sucre International, one of the busiest airports in South America. Volcanic ash suddenly enveloped the 787, shutting-down the engines, disabling the auxiliary power unit (APU), and leaving only one hydraulic system working.

This is one of the situations in which 24 junior pilots from Avianca used synthetic vision to perform a near safe landing — with no prior experience with the equipment. These pilots were in the earliest stages of their career, preparing to obtain a type rating and begin flying commercial passenger-carrying aircraft.

Avianca's training manager said their performance using the technology was better under those scenarios than it would have been while using the current technology that they fly with, which he attributed to the new generation and what they're used to handling earlier in life. They use the iPads and the touchscreens at a very early age, so it made it easier and natural for them to use this type of virtual world representation that they could see on the display, even if they could not see outside of the cockpit.

Aviation in Crisis

Aviation is in crisis with the growing demand for new pilots as the airline industry continues to experience global shortages in the number of certified pilots. It is the elephant in the room for commercial aviation at present. In the next 20 years, airlines in North America alone are going to be in need of around 117,000 new pilots. Projected shortage of airline pilots in the U.S. is expected to increase to over 2,000 by 2025, compared to the recorded pilot deficit of 155 in 2016. Airlines are cancelling flights and in extreme cases, ceasing operations due to lack of pilots. Training academies and transition from militaries can't keep up.

Canada's pilot shortage will become even worse in the short term without changes to proposed federal guidelines around pilot fatigue management. Transport Minister Marc Garneau has said Canadian travelers have the right to expect their pilots to be in good physical and mental shape while on the job. However, the airline industry says those guidelines are unnecessary and based on bad or no science and a one-size-fits-all approach, forcing carriers to hire upwards of 30% more pilots to maintain current service levels. "Basically, [it would be] increasing the pilot shortage dramatically," said John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada. "So we're saying, how is that going to improve safety?" Some carriers could cut routes to some regional airports because of the added expenses. "If there is a shortage of pilots, there are fewer planes flying. Fewer planes means fewer routes," said McKenna.

"It has a major impact mostly on the smaller communities because they are served by regional carriers and they are feeling the pinch more than the larger carriers are."

Canada produced only about 1,000 pilots in 2017, and half of them were international students.

Avionics, a Piece of the Puzzle

Avionics plays a role as one of the puzzle-pieces. New pilots coming out of glass cockpit training aircraft and programs may swallow their gum when placed in a regional airline's turboprop sim with steam gauges and the 1970's traditional six-pack of flight instruments.  The senior training pilots, chief pilots, flight technical and standards captains that one has to retain to survive, normally won't stay with commercial carriers and corporate flight departments that fly "junk" avionics.

Aircraft manufacturers are working to adapt jets to reduce the number of pilots needed for long-haul flights and design new flight decks for a single pilot, to ease the crisis and drive down airline's costs.

Airbus and Thales expect the number of cockpit crew on long-haul flights, typically three or four, could be reduced to two from 2023 thanks to new technologies to reduce pilot workload.

Boeing is also examining the possibility of having reduced manning in the flight deck of a proposed mid-sized jet that it aims to have in service by 2025 if it proceeds with a launch decision next year.

The sponsors of reduced numbers in the flight deck say the move, which could begin with cargo flights, is inevitable, just as pilot numbers were cut from three to two in the 1980s when flight engineer positions went away with new aircraft like the Boeing 757.

Replacing the collection of discrete knobs and switches with more digital interfaces familiar to today's teenagers could also help to shorten the amount of time it takes to train pilots, easing the shortage.

The future could be an autonomous commercial jet along the lines of a driverless car, although that technology, which requires clean-sheet designs from the manufacturers, could take until 2040, according to an estimate from Thales.

Aviation safety critics say there are good safety reasons for having more than two pilots in the cockpit on long-haul flights and at least two on shorter journeys, with the costs outweighed by the benefits.

Regardless, manufacturers are pushing ahead with projects like embedding artificial intelligence into the flight deck and connectivity that allows for more decision-making on the ground. In an industry where safety is the governing prime directive, reducing flight crew isn't in the cards any time soon.

How to Help

Where can avionics integrators and avionics OEMs help? Can they? Yes. One example is teaching on real avionics and with CBT software packages, even if they are no longer economically useful, which can aid in the learning process and retention for the students. If these teaching aids are donated, the schools could have lower costs and possibly reduce their charges to the students. The donor gets both positive public exposure and possibly a tax deduction.

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