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Tag: pilot shortage

The beginning of the beginning of the end

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, there are signs of an ever-so-slow return to normalcy. In the last couple of months, airports are showing more signs of activity, from more crowded terminals to more flights arriving and departing. Airlines are cycling more airplanes in and out of storage, and more importantly, they are bringing some out of storage for good. At three U.S. based carriers—United, Southwest, and American—the Boeing 737 MAX has returned to service.

The three big federal payroll protection program (PPP) grants and loans have gone a long way to help stabilize the industry. Employees who were going to be furloughed are being kept on the payroll. Pilots are being kept current, and those who can afford to take some unpaid time off are being given an opportunity to do so. (Two of these PPP blocks have already been signed into law; the third is currently headed toward the Senate, where it is likely to pass.)

Now that the U.S. FDA has approved a third vaccine, we can pick up the steady march toward herd immunity in the United States while also sending extra supply to other nations that need it. This is critical for helping achieve a return toward normal levels of trade, travel, and tourism. It will take some time for the global economy to rebound, but once that recovery gains traction, it should be a steady improvement. Time will tell.

In the aviation sector, this is all great news. Few industries are as capital-intensive as the airlines with as few direct sources of revenue. A number of airlines have already failed, and more may well follow. But the best news is that several airlines that were talking about having to furlough are now actively spooling up their hiring processes.

During the pandemic, agreements were made with various unions to offer early retirement packages to employees, including pilots, and it now looks like there will be a faster recovery in some sectors than originally anticipated. Leisure travel will recover first, and maybe even fastest, as folks look to get away from home after feeling trapped for so long. Florida is open, except for cruises, and flights to and from the state are full and—for now—usually cheap.

Business travel will take longer to recover, but that might also make it more predictable and easier to manage. The international business community will take longer to return as nations slowly lift their travel restrictions and the vaccines begin to reach more and more people. That said, trade shows, meetings, et cetera, that were postponed or canceled will slowly be returned to the calendar, and advance tickets will be sought, bought, and sold.

All signs point to the beginning of the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with a nation and a globe full of people desperate to return to a more normal, familiar life. If this is indeed the case, the airlines have weathered an incredibly difficult path—one that would not have been possible without federal aid, but still they will have succeeded.

It’s too soon to say if the pilot shortages of 2018 to 2020 will return, or will be as severe, but I think it is safe to say that those who want to find a career in aviation will have the opportunities to do so far sooner than we might have thought even a few months ago, and that is indeed welcome news.—Chip Wright

The Chicken or the Egg?

It seems to me we’re at a bit of a tipping point with the GA ecosystem. There simply aren’t enough instructors around to solve the pilot shortage. And without enough pilots, we certainly won’t have a sufficient supply of instructors.

I know of a half dozen people just at my local FBO—mainly line service, flight attendants, and office personnel—who already work in the aviation sector, see the shortage, and want to be part of the solution.

But they can’t, because they go through instructors like a mouse through cheese. Every time I talk to one of them, my queries about how their training is progressing are met with the same reply: I just lost my instructor, and I’m not sure where the next one is going to come from. Then there’s a multi-week or -month delay while they’re hooked up with a fresh instructor, who flies with them briefly before leaving for a regional airline.

It begs the question: What happens when you run out of commercial pilot certificate holders to turn into CFIs? It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the problem is a serious one, because eventually, it will encourage airlines to find their own solutions, one of which will likely be ab intio. I foresaw this four years ago and wrote about it. Will it solve the airline’s labor needs? Yes. And it will damage general aviation in the process.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: Fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, seaplanes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those “crap” jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting the continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

My writing here on the AOPA blog is centered on business aviation, but I’m touching on this issue because it’s a problem that will affect everyone who flies. In fact, I recently mentioned it in AOPA Pilot Turbine Edition. It’s getting hard not to, actually.

I was having a Twitter discussion with a fellow instructor about how to improve the situation. We were ticking off reasons that there aren’t more CFIs:

1) Many flight schools have closed, victims of the financial crisis of the last decade.
2) The airlines are vacuuming up all the relatively high-time CFIs
3) It takes longer and costs more to become a CFI than ever before
4) Compensation for CFIs is, on the average, quite low
5) High-time, retired, second-career, experienced instructors tend to be older, have higher net worth, and are concerned about insurance and liability issues
6) A lack of respect for CFIs, who are viewed as fungible, entry-level workers

The long-term solution will require investment in the grade school kids, getting them out to the airport when they’re young. Bringing aviation-centric STEM curriculum into the schools. Starting to equalize the 95-to-5 ratio of men to women in the cockpit. But there are also short-term solutions:

1. Reduce the cost of learning to fly, but do so in a way that doesn’t cut into the CFI’s meager compensation. The best, fastest, and easiest way to do this? Change planes. Ditch the SR22 and replace it with a Champ, Citabria, Cub, or other dirt-simple tailwheel design. It will turn out pilots with better stick-and-rudder skills, and reduce the hourly cost of the airplane by $100 or more. Now take that money and put it in the CFI’s pocket. Or split the savings between the student and his or her instructor.

2. Targeted tort reform to assuage the concerns of the retired professional pilots, post-retirement instructors, and others who have the experience we want in our CFIs.

3. Create an industrywide CFI insurance pool to ensure strong liability insurance is available at reasonable cost.

4. Start seeing instructors for what they truly are: the steel girders which hold the aviation world aloft. The base of the pyramid. The very foundation. The ones who determine just how good an aviator that airline, charter, corporate, military, or private pilot will be when you and your loved ones are aboard.

5. The problem of lack of flight schools will solve itself when the demand is there.

6. In many, perhaps most, places, the CFI training process is appallingly long. I know instructors are important from a safety standpoint, but what they do is neither rocket science or brain surgery, so it shouldn’t take as long to earn an instructor certificate as it does to get a PhD.

Has the workforce imbalance reached the point where it can’t be turned around? That’s a question I can’t answer. But I look at my 3-year-old son and think how incredibly sad it would be to know our generation used the world’s finest general aviation system to it’s fullest… and then watched as the ladder came up behind us.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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