The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story this week about the impending lack of qualified pilots. The story cited three major causes: the Age 65 mandatory retirement age, which goes into full effect this year; the change in rest requirements that will require pilots to get more rest on overnights, and will thus lead to a need for more pilots to staff the airline; and the new certification requirements that will require pilots to have 1,500 hours before getting an airline job.
Let’s be clear about one thing. This shortage was going to happen anyway because of the Age 65 rule. It used to be age 60, but five years ago, a deal was made to allow the older pilots to continue flying as a concession for terminating their pension plans (there was no provision that allowed pilots to collect full Social Security at age 60).
Make no mistake that the airlines knew that this shortage of pilots was coming had the retirement age not been raised. The retirement age was not raised because people suddenly had an epiphany about the overall health of the pilot population being good enough to allow pilots to fly to 60. It was a quid pro quo that simultaneously brought the United States in line with what other nations do and kicked a staffing problem down the road.
Jump ahead to where we are today, which, like the fiscal cliff, is “down the road.” There are fewer students aspiring to be professional pilots in the pipeline thanks to the staggering cost of acquiring all of the ratings and requirements to become an airline pilot. The military is no longer the source of pilots it was, and as the story pointed out, many Americans have gone overseas to fly. The salaries that can be earned overseas are phenomenal, and considering the tax advantages combined with some companies providing globally accepted health insurance, it’s a tempting move for many. More overseas jobs are not requiring pilots to move, and those that do often provide subsidized housing and education for children.
The shortage we have here is indeed aggravated by the changes in the rest rules and the experience requirements for airline new hires, but as I said, it would have happened anyway. Hiring is picking up for more than just attrition. The regionals have always been able to plan on attrition to the majors, but now they must beef up staffing for the rest rules. The good news in this is that the airlines that have historically overworked their employees will no longer be able to get away with such practices. Quality of life will dramatically improve.
For those who are planning to fly professionally, going from 250 hours to 1,500 will take about two years of full-time flight instructing, give or take. As happened in the last major wave of continuous hiring that ended about four years ago, those pilots ready to take the next step will find that their timing will probably never be better. Folks who are considering flying as a career still need to do their own risk-benefit analysis based on their age and where they are in their flight training, but for pilots who are under 25, single, with no criminal record, and (especially) a college degree the sky may literally be the limit.
Some may disagree with me, but I also believe that pay and benefits will get better out of necessity at the regional level. Even with the shrinking RJ fleet, airlines still need pilots. A comment in the Journal story said that it would take six months to develop a solution to the problem, but four years to execute it. Part of that solution will have to be making ALL flying financially attractive. The question for potential pilots is this: Where in that solution do you fit?—By Chip Wright