The pilot shortage is gaining attention

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

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12 Responses to “The pilot shortage is gaining attention”

  1. Steven Monday says:

    Just a quick question / comment.

    Please don’t think me an opportunist but, how will this pilot shortage affect the cost and availability of training. I read that ERAU conducted a “summit” with organizations to determine a possible course of action for the industry. Will there be “Grants, Scholorships, Federal Student Aide, etc.” for the purpose of obtaining training to fulfill the shortage. For some of us it IS the cost of training. For others it is the low wage after training. For some it is both.
    I am just checking to see what progress is being made concerning this challenge.

  2. Dan DiMarco says:

    Mr. Wright,
    what about the pilots who are curently flying with the airlines before the new 1500 hour rule comes into effect? Will they be grandfathered in?
    Thanks~Dan

  3. GregV says:

    1,500 hours makes any dream of mine disappear. There’s just no way I can pay for the training to get to CFI, then starve two years as CFI and then starve as a entry level pilot for three more years. Is being able to fly professionally going to cost more than a medical degree at an elite university? How many hundreds of thousands do I need to get into debt to fly? How many years do I need to put my life on hold to attain a salary that pays less than a job a Walmart?

    Next years requirements are outrageous. I’m positive it will do nothing but to discourage and put additional strain on already struggling flight schools. We’ll be teaching the rest of the world to fly while Americans sit idly tinkering with model airplanes instead of flying the real thing.

  4. cwright says:

    Dan,

    This is a good question. Right now, the airlines are not being offered any exception to grandfather the sub-1500 hour pilots. In fact, many have raised their minimums in order to avoid this problem. Skywest is using a step plan, stating that the minimums are going up each month so as to assure that this isn’t a problem, and there are a few that are allowing pilots to take leaves of absence so that junior pilots can fly and get those hours. If the rule went into effect today, those pilots would, for all intents and purposes, be grounded and have to go make up the difference on their own, but I assume that their spot on the seniority list would be preserved for a period of time. This is one issue worth watching, but there has been plenty of warning on this for enough time that I don’t see the FAA cutting any slack…and nor should they.

    Steven,

    I suspect that personal cost is a far larger part of the decision making process than has been acknowledged. I suspect that certain scholarships, etc. will be created and/or offered. In time, I would not be surprised to see certain airlines offer to pay back a large part of pilot training costs if certain conditions are met—grades, passed checkrides, and most importantly, years of service to a given carrier, but I think these steps are down the road a bit. The airlines have to truly feel the pain before they go this route. However, I think certain aid opportunities will exist fairly soon for those that meet the criteria.

    Greg,

    As an industry veteran, especially at the regional level, I will respectfully—and strongly—disagree about the requirements being “outrageous.” In fact, in some respects, they are not strong enough or shoot for the wrong target. That said, the ability to invest the time into becoming an airline pilot can appear to be daunting. The key here, and I’ve mentioned this before, is to keep your debt load and other expenditures in check. Having done the starvation-wage lifestyle myself (both as a CFI and a regional FO), I can attest that it can be done and, while it isn’t easy, it is often as hard as you make it. Please don’t take that to be a cavalier statement. It’s not.

    A most important step in this process, if you decide to pursue an airline career, is to look at the new FAR requirements, as well as the requirements for several regionals you might want to work for, and then work backwards to figure out the best path for you. You may decide to go gang-busters and get your hours as fast as possible to get that first job, or you may teach in your spare time to work a more regular job and get there slower. Both methods have worked, and both have their pros and cons. Remember, you can still do the FBO route, but it is a higher hurdle.

    The monetary investment will be significant, but there are ways to save significant amounts of money without compromising safety or quality. Only you can decide what you are willing or not so willing to do.

    Chip

  5. Nicholas Galladora says:

    Every time I see an article like this, I grin.

    I’m working on a commercial certificate/instrument rating but can’t see the reasoning behind quitting my nice paying I.T. job and going into flying for less money and more work. If the airlines wanted pilots they shouldn’t have raised the minimum age, they should have treated their people better and enticed people to pursue that career.

  6. When the major airlines deceide there is indeed a shortage, they will raise the pay back to allow for the standard of living that existed about 25 years ago. It is all about supply and demand.

    The drawbacks to the job still exist: missed holidays and family celebrations, living out of a suitcase, late nights followed by early departures etc. There has to be a reason to acquire the required training and certification. I love to fly and that powered me to flight instruct and make much less than my wife in the beginning to build time, but not anymore. Pilots are a commodity like fuel. Bring the pay and benefits back and there will be no shortage.

  7. Scott F says:

    One of the biggest boondoggles congress/FAA has created is the 1500 hr/ATP requirement for FOs (pilots all need/have ATPs). It does nothing for safety and just discourages potential good pilots. The rule needs to overturned and reduced to something like 750hrs and a requirement to obtain the ATP within say 3 years with a part 121 operation. Talking about cutting off one’s nose to spite the face!! A very small but vocal minority potentially decimate a good career for many of us. (i.e. Colgan Air 3407 survivors/supporters)

  8. John McCreight says:

    I am a near-30 potential career switcher, but I’m running into a lot of the problems described above. I work full time in IT and have a (college) student wife. FAA PPL and ~100 hours, but I just don’t see how to work it financially. I could get loans to get up into flight instruction land…but then I’m on food stamps for those two years, then another 3 while I supposedly “pay my dues.” I have no idea how that’s supposed to look good to anyone, even someone like me who already put in thousands to get the PPL and keep working toward the instrument rating.

    Can anyone comment on good resources for getting employed at one of these overseas carriers that actually respects their new employees?

  9. Chip Wright says:

    John,
    If you want to fly overseas, you will need to fly here first. You will need to get several thousand hours of total time, especially turbine/jet time, preferably at a 121 carrier (airline).

    PIC time always helps, but I know of a number of FO’s who went overseas with no PIC time. What I don’t know is whether or not there is a bias about upgrading them to captain without prior PIC time. In many countries, the captains are expats, and the FO’s are locals, and they promote those FO’s over expat FO’s.

    Chip

  10. stuart says:

    The FAA should allow diabetics to fly. Other countries such as Canada and Great Britain are solving their pilot shortages this way

  11. stuart says:

    The FAA needs to modernize and allow diabetics to fly. Great Britain and Canada already allow this. There are thousands of well-qualified diabetics willing to fly for airlines.

  12. lima victor says:

    pilot shortage?! people always talk of that… but i always say you can only have one job at a time, but it would be nice to go from 15 applying for one job down to 10 but then you will still have someone willing to pay for the TR out of pocket. then another one will to pay for the TR and fly for free and then someone else will to pay for the TR and P2F and then the guy who gets the job will pay for the TR , P2F and bribes HR for the job ! NUMBERS dont lie 10 years ago there were 87,000 CFI, now there are 98,000. 10 years ago 142,000 ATP now 145,000 with ATP , last year 6,600 new ATP licenses were issued, an increse of 220% from 2010. before pilots could fly( 23 for atp to 60 = 37 ) and now 23 to 65 or 42 years a 15 % increase. was there a shortage 10 years ago when pilots had to retire at 60? no. so what makes you think there will be now when they retire at 65? when there is a surplass “its take it or leave boys” when and if there is a shortage i gurantee you they will trie to bring in foreign pilots before improving the wages/conditions. (i love my country but unfortunately its the american way) But they are going to get a shock when they realize there arent any foreign pilots or those willing to work for 18k a year . there are many young people in places like peru and if you have a private license the airlines will pay for their commercial ifr ME etc, and then go on to fly a320 for 4 grand a month.
    ive flown all over the world , visited many many DGCA offices and discussed the pilot situation with the locals and i know the market well.

    good luck to all, safe flying

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