Destination tomorrow: US career programme addresses looming pilot shortage

SOURCE: Shutterstock
With demand for air travel growing, the global aviation industry is facing a major pilot shortage.

By Clara Chooi 

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A growing airline pilot shortage is expected to hit the global airline industry hard, as higher education systems fail to keep pace with spiking demand for air travel.

Industry estimates from Boeing say that as air travel demand doubles over the next 20 years, airlines will need to match that with an additional 800,000 pilots. 

A look at current trends, however, suggests that filling the gap may well remain a pipe dream, not unless industry stakeholders work together on a solution.


In the US, the pilot shortage problem has already begun to reach a critical stage. Screaming headlines across the past year have consistently continued to augur doom for US aviation, many of them citing a growing talent supply-and-demand mismatch, not unlike that faced by digitally-disrupted sectors.

The most commonly cited problem is that a massive number of “Baby Boomer” pilots will soon be reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65; Boeing says 42 percent of US airline pilots will be reaching retirement between now and 2026. 

Other reasons include expensive training and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements that make it hard to enter the profession. The US is said to be the only country in the world with airlines that require its pilots to have four-year degrees, on top of attending flight school.

In addition to that, it is now a requirement for airline pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight experience. Prior to the changes, which were made following the Colgan crash near Buffalo in 2009, the requirement was just 250 hours.

Against such a backdrop, FAA numbers say pilot numbers have declined over the years, plunging 30 percent from 827,000 pilots in 1987. Considering how much air travel has exploded during this time, the decline represents the rumblings of a perfect storm that, in the absence of a solution, will continue to wreak havoc in the national aviation sector.

Determined to stay ahead of the problem, Southwest Airlines has launched an innovative career programme that provides pathways to becoming a competitively qualified candidate for future Southwest First Officer positions.

Dubbed Destination 225°, which refers to the southwesterly direction on a compass, the programme is the airline’s way of easing the barriers to entry to becoming a pilot and, hopefully, to address the growing pilot shortage problem.

“With demand for qualified and professional pilots projected to increase in the coming years, Destination 225° seeks to meet future, high-potential aviators at their current experience level and provide pathways to assist them with becoming highly skilled and qualified for future opportunities at Southwest,” a press release on the programme says.

Southwest Airlines career pathway programme
Southwest Airlines is creating its own talent pipeline for the future. Source: Shutterstock

The four pathways are as follows:

  1. The Cadet pathway for those looking to start their flying career
  2. The University pathway for collegiate aviators who attend a Southwest partner university or complete a Southwest Campus Reach Internship
  3. The Military pathway that bridges the gap for active military pilots who do not yet meet minimum requirements
  4. The Employee pathway for Southwest employees—those with some flight experience, as well as those who are just considering following their dreams. 

To offer the programme, the airline will be teaming up with industry partners, including CAE, Bell Murray Aviation, US Aviation, Jet Linx, XOJET Aviation, iAero Group’s Swift Air, as well as universities such as the Arizona State University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, University of Nebraska Omaha, and the University of Oklahoma.

“It’s very much like companies coming to the university and recruiting accountants or engineers,” explains director of the University of Oklahama’s School of Aviation Ken Carson of the programme’s university pathway.

“They’re wanting to attract the best and brightest,” he adds in The Norman Transcript.


Participants who successfully apply, interview and are selected to join the programme will receive a Southwest mentor throughout their years of training. They will also be invited to Southwest for training activities and events, all of which will culminate in an opportunity to apply for the role of First Officer at the airline.

This way, those who enter Southwest would already be well-versed with company culture and expectations, Carson says. And Southwest would not just be doing its bit to tackle the national pilot shortage problem, it would also be addressing its own future recruitment needs.

“It’s kind of like an internship,” he adds.

“They opt into the program, and really nothing changes. It’s just an alignment to that company, and they will come down and do an interview. Instead of the students running around to find them, they’re coming to the students.”

The participants will go through rigorous training and continuous evaluation throughout the programme. 

They will not need to pay to apply for the programme; however, candidates advancing through the selection will be responsible for costs incurred such as when obtaining a USA DOT/FAA First-Class Medical Certificate, completing an aptitude assessment and other costs such as travel and accommodations, among others.

“We are looking for participants who demonstrate the technical aptitude to excel in all aspects of their training and development as a future Southwest Pilot,” says Alan Kasher, Vice President of Flight Operations.