It could get worse
Small-package delivery services via hubs in Atlanta, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Fort Lauderdale are already experiencing disruptions, according to members of RACCA. In other words, despite their assurances, FedEx, UPS, and DHL are already running up against the shortage. While their own pilots are at the top of the ladder, many of their routes are contracted out to smaller airlines. In addition, the five years retirement extension to 65 years of age is starting to hit the ceiling.
The UND study paints a dire picture. By 2020, unfilled pilot vacancies will exceed 8,000 per year, and by 2025, that figure will be more than 12,000, eventually exceeding 15,000. These statistics, in conjunction with Boeing estimates that North America alone will need 112,000 new airline pilots over the next 20 years, are cause for alarm.
“Millions of Americans are not going to get their online purchases delivered to their front door if the situation does not improve,” RACCA’s Bernstein warned. He noted that, while pilot shortages on the regional passenger side were well known, those same communities “are going to be surprised when what they ordered online isn’t delivered in a timely manner.”
The disruptions extend to other shipments, and ultimately general air cargo. Manufacturing equipment that needs to be rushed to assembly lines will take longer to reach peripheral economic centers, costing businesses millions of dollars per day. Medical testing samples might start to travel over land, endangering lives and preventing timely treatment. Across the U.S. economy, there are few areas of activity that aren’t at risk.
Forwarders, while less exposed at this point, are also repositioning their assets towards a smaller footprint and warehouses that are closer to the last mile, making agility a more important asset. “That means not relying on mega-distribution centers,” explained Mike Short, president of global forwarding at C.H. Robinson.
Amazon made headlines last year when it started leasing its own Prime Air aircraft to better control its capacity. However, the union representing pilots flying for Amazon warned that pilot turnover had tripled. Both Atlas Air Worldwide and ATSG, which are contracted to pilot the 767F aircraft for Amazon are sanguine in public, but there are rumors of low turnout to hiring classes and higher turnover as competition for pilots makes its way up the food chain.
Cancelled routes and schedule reductions are especially concerning to Komberec, of Empire Airlines. Over the last 18 months, Komberec has been forced to restrict scheduling and turn down new business, while contending with growing internal restraints. “Our customers have to be much more careful about how they deploy us as an asset,” he said. “We’re still carrying the freight, but some days are tougher than others.”