Is it Here?

Five years ago, the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age to 65. The FAA will try to convince you that this was done for two reasons, the first being to bring the United States in to ICAO compliance with other nations around the world, and the second being that after more than 40 years of an age 60 rule, scientific data from around the world supported an increase to age 65, so long as only one pilot on a crew is older than. The reality is that for 40 years the various unions did not want to raise the age because of the impact it would have on the career progression of the younger ranks, and the airlines didn’t want it because that was five more years of paying top dollar to senior pilots while also running the risk of high-cost medical insurance claims.

Reality set it in, however, when airlines began to dump their traditional pension plans. When that happened, senior pilots suddenly faced the possibility of not being able to afford retirement. Further, while one branch of the government mandated retirement (FAA), another (Congress) would not allow an exemption allowing said pilots access to full Social Security benefits even though they were no longer allowed to work. The unions, realizing that a huge wave of soon-to-be-retired pilots would be hitting the streets with no pension and no way to work, hastily conducted “studies” that in a matter of weeks overturned decades of resistance, and voila, they suddenly supported an increase in the retirement age to 65. Funny how that happens.

The airlines, in turn, realizing they had no leg to stand on, also realized that there were very few pilots left to replace the regional captains that would be moving up to the majors, and they quietly withdrew opposition to the new age, and holstered their weapons.

Now, the day of reckoning is here. In the past five years, there are have been a few retirements, and almost no hiring, and also almost no training. Plus, new rules slated to be published in August have everyone on edge regarding future requirements. Also, in the last five years, a few things have changed. Banks aren’t handing money out like they did, potential pilots are recognizing the much higher risk factor of low pay and high loan payments, and more importantly, a lot of furloughed pilots have left the industry. The age 65 rule goes into effect in December 2012, but the airlines must begin training well in advance of that, and some have. JetBlue has done some hiring for expansion, as has Southwest. But next year, Continental/United will have to begin planning for a mass exodus of CAL pilots, and USAir will need to begin planning on almost every captain from the East side hanging up their wings. Not far behind will be the Northwest pilots at Delta, and in a few years, American will begin a massive purge of the original “B” scale pilots. Their replacements will be regional captains.

New regional first officers are already in short supply. AMR Eagle has dropped its minimum hour requirements down to 500, and other carriers are requiring only 50 hours of multi-engine time. At least one regional has canceled a few classes because of no-shows or because only a few showed up. I personally know at least one pilot from my own airline that has been offered class dates on the phone from recruiters, sight unseen, on more than one occasion.

This is the beginning of the wave. By this time next year, especially if the new rest rules as proposed go into effect, the regionals are going to be scrambling to build a pilot corp. The rest rules alone will require hiring more people. Attrition will take care of the rest. This, I believe, is the time to be getting into the industry either as a line pilot or as a well-qualified CFI at the right school.

Take advantage of it, and good luck!

–Chip Wright

4 Responses to “Is it Here?”

  1. David says:

    Chip,

    Will you be one of those regional pilots who will be “moving up”? Remember, the majors are famous for hiring until they furlough and vice versa. Are you prepared for a possible 100% pay cut if your major airline begins to furlough again? I’ve been through 2 of them.

    The pilot unions that you mention who supported the “voila” age 60 rule change are the same entities who can hopefully press the airlines (regional and major) to raise pilot salaries.

    Being able to live on the pathetic wages of regional airlines (and some majors) for your first 5 years just because you were used to the low pay as a CFI is not good enough reason to accept them! The “Shiny Jet Syndrome” continues to artificially depress wages for new cockpit crewmembers. Low labor costs for new cockpit crewmembers should NOT be considered the cornerstone of a successful airline business model. Unless you’re on the board of directors of said airline, of course.

    Just think of this: if there’s truly a “pilot shortage”, perhaps the airlines would boost the pay rates of what once was an enviable career. Now, it’s just a low paying job.

  2. Donnie says:

    I second David’s comments. There was once a time when an airline pilot’s job was a high-paying respectable job. I know everybody has to start somewhere; but there are convenient store jobs that pay more than these new hire ’90-day wonder’ regional airline copilots make.

  3. Chip Wright says:

    David,
    I can’t honestly answer right now if I will be going to a major. Right now, I make a pretty decent living, and with two young kids I need to eventually put through college (I’m already paying for it), any decision I make must be carefully and well thought out. However, 15+ years is hard to leave behind, esp. when one is north of 40. While your comment about majors hiring until they furlough is true, a pilot hired on the front end of the wave this time is likely to avoid that–the majors have to replace thousands of pilots.

    For example, if one is hired at USAir now, he will be a captain in the top one-third of their list in less than 10 years. Similar conditions await those hired at UAL/CAL when they hire. AMR will be a few years away, but when they start, it will be a flood, as they have thousands of early-1980′s B-scale pilots set to retire. Once Delta starts to retire pilots at age 65, they will need 500-600 a year for several years.

    I do firmly believe that the regionals will indeed have to increase pay to attract pilots. The only other solution is a true, guaranteed flow-through, which would allow them to articially keep pay down, but only to certain degree. What I can guarantee you is this: the next few years will be very interesting to watch, and it may very well be the last of the great, RWN5 fundamental shifts in the industry that many have predicted.

  4. DE says:

    Very interesting hmmmmmmm…. Air Wis has lots of older pilots, seems they r in hiring mode now… and announcement of British airways is interesting indeed…

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