• Captain Patrick Gordon

Looming Pilot Shortage and a Possible, Partial Solution

Updated: Feb 13, 2021

When I started flying, back in 1964, the airline pilot shortage was desperate. With only a Private Pilot’s license you could apply to United Airlines. They would send you a space-available airline ticket from the nearest city served by them to their headquarters in Denver, CO. Once there, you would go through a series of interviews, a medical, a psychological review and what was called a Stanine (Standard Nine) test. The military used it during World War II. For more on the Stanine take a look at Wikipedia.


If you met their requirements, United would give you a letter guaranteeing you a job as a co-pilot once you earned your Commercial, Multi-Engine and Instrument ratings. A couple of my pals back then took advantage of that offer and went on to become United Airlines Captains. Those wanna-be pilots actually took these letters to banks and received loans to complete their flying requirements with the agreement to start paying the banks back when they were finally earning a salary. I, on the other hand, never liked schedules so I didn’t even apply. I knew I wanted to become an international contract pilot. I was extremely fortunate to wind up in Abu Dhabi as a pilot for His Highness, The President, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in his private department.


Right now the aviation industry is facing a pilot shortage that could be worse than the one back in the 60s. Regional airlines in the United States are already cutting back on city services because of the lack of pilots. As a result, regional airliners are parked on airport ramps for lack of pilots. Internationally, it’s actually worse. Boeing has stated that in the next two decades the worldwide airline industry will require 637,000 pilots.


We’ve been kicking the can down the road for many years by extending the maximum age limit for pilots until we are at the point now, where if the pilots get any older they’ll be boarding with Zimmers. Another issue is that for at least the last twenty years the pay for new-hire pilots has been pathetic. The low pay came nowhere near justifying the sizeable amount of money, talent and time required to become an employable commercial pilot.

Some airlines, including both Emirates & Etihad have cadet programs through which they can fill their pilot ranks. The training includes both cockpit and classroom educational development.


Industry wide, these cadet programs come nowhere near a solution for the coming pilot shortage. Therefore, let’s look at a do-able solution. The UAE is a developing country with a fast growing population of young, well-educated people, both nationals and residents. The airline cadet programs can only make the slightest dent in the numbers of these youngsters who would love to be pilots and it would be logical to expect that most of the chosen airline cadets would be UAE nationals.

The cost of getting fully qualified as an employable pilot can easily exceed two hundred thousand dollars. The vast majority of non-national, resident youngsters have absolutely no chance of funding that kind of training.


The UAE is interested in building a population that is technically qualified and reasonably well paid. Perhaps an entity could be set up within the government of the UAE to make aviation-training, low-interest loans available. These loans could then be made in conjunction with the issuance of a residence visa in the name of the individual borrower who would, in most cases, already be here on their family’s resident visa program. The loan would enable the student to travel to either South Africa or the United States where flight training is still somewhat reasonably priced. The loan payback would begin as soon as the fledgling pilot began to earn a salary. The residence visa could be revoked if the loan went unpaid for a previously determined amount of time after the start of employment. I would speculate, however, that most of these youngsters would love to have the UAE as a permanent base. Even if they flew, as an expat, in some other country they would be strongly motivated to continue the loan payback and residency visa in the UAE. On final payback of the loan perhaps a special financing arrangement could then be made for them to purchase a home in an expat approved area further cementing their long term ties to the UAE.


Here’s a case in point. At GI Aviation we now have an intern working with us. This intern is a long term resident of the UAE and has no intention of ever living in their home of record where opportunities are sorely limited. The intern has just graduated from Abu Dhabi University, majoring in Aviation Management and had a grade point average of 3.8. They have the desire and the drive to be a pilot but no way to fund the required training and obtaining the minimum amount of flight time now required to be employable. Crowd funding might work for one individual but there are probably far too many potential pilots out there to ever be covered by crowd funding.


A reasonable long term program for the UAE and the aviation industry is to provide training loans accompanied with residence visas to deserving students who can further the development of the country.


We at GI Aviation appreciate the opportunity to assist these students in any way that we can and will always be happy to have them with us as incredibly valuable interns. Financially, however, this program is way beyond our means. These expat youngsters are somewhat like the kids in the United States who were brought to that country illegally by their parents. These youngsters, although they were brought to this country legally, are “Dreamers” and are of long-term value to the UAE. National youngsters who might not qualify for the airline cadet program, and can’t afford the cost of training, are “Dreamers” too.