Pilot Shortage? Some Say Yes. Some Say No.
The impending pilot shortage, which has been predicted for almost a decade, seems much like the ’70’s folk rock lyric, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” That is to say, depending on whom you talk to there is a shortage, then there isn’t, then there is. Well, what is it … yes or no?
The answer, it turns out, is not that simple.
According to a recent Government Accountability Office Report there are more than 137,000 ATP-rated pilots available to fill some 72,000 airline pilot positions in the near future due to attrition and retirement. Does that sound like a shortage?
Many of these pilots are eager to jump into major airline cockpits to replace the thousands who will be retiring in the next few years (FAA mandatory retirement age is now 65). That being said, the number of available pilots willing to jump at a chance to fly at a regional airline, the current stepping stone to the majors, is paltry at best. We’ll get to the reasons for this in a moment.
But First a Word from Your Former Sponsor, the C.A.B.
Before we get into the pros and cons of who is right and who is wrong about the real or imagined pilot shortage, let’s look at some of the forces that have brought us to this point in U.S. commercial aviation.
Until 1978, the U.S. airline industry was regulated and subsidized by Uncle Sam. The government controlled fares, scheduling, even staffing and other business-related aspects of the commercial aviation industry – all of this oversight rested with the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) which was charged with ensuring the airlines a reasonable return on investment. In other words, a profit.
The 1970s, however, brought changes to the airline business that neither the airlines nor the CAB could control. First, there was the introduction of wide-body jets, which dramatically increased passenger capacity. Almost simultaneously, there was the first Middle East oil embargo, which caused fuel prices to soar as well as the cost of transporting all those additional passengers.
Faced with more seats, higher fuel costs and record inflation, the airlines found themselves at odds with their regulator, the CAB, because airlines couldn’t raise fares or choose more lucrative routes over less profitable ones without CAB permission. To assuage the airlines, the CAB allowed fares to increases, an idea that did not sit well with airline customers and their representatives in Washington.
The CAB’s own studies confirmed regulation was strangling the airlines and preventing the market to find its own price levels. Combine that with increased Congressional pressure and soon the way was paved for The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, signed by President Carter and sanctioned by CAB chief Alfred E. Kahn.
At first, it appeared as though deregulation was a win-win for everyone.
It opened the door to free market competition among airline companies, gave them autonomy over routes and pricing structure as well as the salaries and benefits of their employees. The immediate result was an industry expansion ushered in by price wars, discount airlines, (remember People’s Express, remember Freddy Laker) and increased consumer demand.
The CAB had presided at its own demise and because of it was dismantled in 1985. The only aspect of civil aviation left to government oversight was safety and that was given over to the FAA.
Fly Me, I’m Broke.
The expansion that lasted through the 1980s, however, was followed by a downturn in the ‘90s. Then came 9/11 and the deregulated airliners found themselves facing more than rising fuel costs and empty seats. Now there were higher operational costs for added security and safety regulations as well.
Profit margins grew slimmer, Chapter 11 filings became more frequent and mergers grew increasingly prevalent. The remaining airlines had to find more and more ways to shave costs and streamline services – no-frills rides, baggage fees, dropped routes. In addition, they started laying off pilots and aircrews. They also slashed benefits and pensions and slowly eroded the perks that went with flying for the airlines. In the end it came down to reduced options for the flying public and reduced opportunities for airline industry employees.
Which Brings Us to the Pilot Shortage?
U.S. Airlines, who haven’t hired new pilots in years, now find the times they are a-changing. Many pilots are reaching the FAA mandatory retirement age of 65. Many more are being lured away by higher pay and better benefits at overseas carriers (i.e. U.S. airlines start first officers $61,000/yr. – foreign airlines pay $80,000/yr.). There are higher training requirements for pilots, new mandatory rest periods for pilots, and according to many (but not the Government Accountability Office) fewer qualified pilots. Please note that the airlines helped craft some of these safety regulations themselves. What’s more, there aren’t legions of military pilots waiting to fill the ranks like there were in times past.
After more than a decade of furloughs, reduced pay and slashed benefits, some pilots have just dropped out of aviation. Worse yet, young adults, who might have considered a career in aviation are looking elsewhere.
Air Line Pilot Magazine says there isn’t a shortage of qualified pilots but, “a shortage of qualified pilots willing to fly for substandard wages and inadequate benefits.”
If that’s true, the “pilot shortage” becomes even more acute when you look at what’s going on with the regional carriers. After the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo a few years ago, Congress pressured the FAA for new pilot requirements. Now a pilot cannot even be considered for a right seat at a regional airline unless he or she has at least 1,500 hours (that’s six times higher than previous requirements).
Rest rules have also been extended, creating scheduling problems and at times crew scarcity (more aircraft available than pilots legally permitted to fly them). Some airlines are using this fact to close down routes and stop service to certain cities. Not good news for small cities and worse news for someone looking for a flying gig.
It’s Money That’s In Short Supply, Not Pilots.
The truth is the regional carriers operate on shoestring budgets. They always have. The pay for flying the right seat is often $20,000 a year or less. That’s so low; a military pilot would do better by re-enlisting.
Then there’s the flight school problem. It’s not just that the price of learning to fly is sky high (which wasn’t always the case), but that there are 40% fewer student pilots than a decade ago. Today’s commercial flight schools rely more and more on foreign students to stay open. Foreign students eventually take their skills home, reducing the market for American pilots abroad as well.
Aviation colleges still attract students, but almost all students are encouraged to take business management classes in addition to their pilot training. The conventional wisdom is be prepared for more than a career in aviation, be prepared for one outside of aviation.
Because after sinking one to two hundred thousand dollars into training at an aeronautical college, a $20,000 a year right-seat flying job at a regional airline will barely put a dent paying off a student loan and hardly leave enough left over for a pilot to exist on while waiting for an opening at a major airline.
Why Don’t Airlines Just Hire Military Pilots?
At one time, the military was the training ground for the U.S. airline industry.
Airlines got skilled pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience and they got them without having to train them. This is no longer the case. Now the route to flying for a major airline job is through the regional airlines and if their pay stinks and the career path is long and serpentine, you begin to see why there may be a pilot shortage – if not in the immediate future, but in the not too distant one.
One person who doesn’t think there is a shortage is Louis Smith, president of FAPA.aero. He believes there is a pilot “workforce defect.” That defect is in the way regional airlines operate, hire and pay. Mister Smith believes “since the regional airline passenger feed is critical to mainline success, measures must be taken to make the career path more compelling and lucrative.” Given the current fragile economics of running a regional airline that may be easier said than done.
Is Anyone Doing Anything About All This?
One aviation powerhouse who has taken a stand on the current situation in commercial aviation is aircraft manufacturer Boeing. They announced at the 2014 Air Venture in Oshkosh that they’re starting a “Pilot Development Program.” Note that Air Venture is not a commercial aviation venue, but a grass-roots, general aviation one and this was the first time Boeing has made an appearance in this kind of airshow. Boeing thinks there really is a coming pilot shortage and they’re doing something about it.
Boeing is partnering with local flight schools to get pilots to the point where they have the 200 to 250 hours needed to get their ATP rating. Qualifying graduates will then be moved to a Boeing owned and operated jet transition facility to prepare for airline flying.
Boeing is hoping partners will step up to finance the program. They’re hoping those partners will be major U.S. airlines who they believe have a stake in the success of the program.
Meanwhile, some regional airlines are trying to entice recent ATP-rated pilots to join their ranks by giving signing bonuses and other incentives. It doesn’t make up for the lousy pay, but it does show there is at least some awareness that problem may be more financial than aeronautical.
You Say Yes, and I Say I Don’t Know.
Still, some people are saying all this pilot shortage stuff is nonsense… that there are plenty of pilots to go around. Louis Smith, for example, says, “I will call it a pilot shortage when pilot employers begin paying students to learn to fly.”
In that case, if Boeing convinces airlines to go in with them on their “Pilot Development Program,” we’ll know whether or not there is a real pilot shortage… or not.