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The Big Problem Driving the Aviation Industry’s Pilot Shortage

A Boeing 767 on the runway - The Pilot Shortage Problem in the Aviation Industry

A Perfect Storm Created the Aviation Industry’s Pilot Shortage Problem

The aviation industry and government regulators have created a perfect storm, but you have to look closely at the radar to realize where the danger really is. There are, and will always be, enough pilots who want to fly airplanes to keep the equipment in the sky. The pilot shortage storm we are entering into is not a necessarily a large problem for the majors right now, but it’s a primary issue with where they get many of their pilots from: regional or commuter carriers. And, it’s not a matter of pilots, the key word here is qualified pilots. That one word is the issue, so let’s work backward and see where and how the industry trend and pilot shortage problem started.

A perfect storm isn’t built on just one ingredient. It arises out of a rare combination of adverse factors and this storm starts with a dwindling pilot pool. The declining population of pilots is not an opinion. In 1980, the general aviation industry was booming with over 827,000 active certificated pilots. General aviation airports thrived and because they were unsecured, were often a casual meeting place for tens of thousands of pilots. There was a strong community but with the constraints of security after 9/11, walls went up and simply having the ability to hang around the airport disappeared. Aviation is iconic for freedom and independence, so it lost some luster under lock and key. Last year (2015), there were only 590,039 pilots total (including students) and only 487,310 of those held at least a private license. Having 339,690 fewer pilots to draw from at the same time that the aviation demands are growing is the first ingredient for our perfect storm. And don’t forget, of those numbers, only a small percentage actually want to make a career out of aviation.

So, where’d all our pilots go? Given the economic turmoil in past years, one might immediately assume our disposable personal income has disappeared and people can’t afford to learn how to fly. The reality is that our expendable income has remained on a steady ratio climb since 1959. At least a portion of our population still has some money to spend (even if it doesn’t feel like it to you!) on learning how to fly if they so choose. If the option is still there for many, maybe the cost of flight training has changed?

United Airlines Boeing 747 on runway
Photo by Aero Icarus, CC2

It has always been expensive to learn how to fly, but now that our airspace and airplanes have become more complex, it does take longer to get your license. The minimum is 40 hours, but the average is now 60-70 hours. There are many variables on cost, but it is roughly between $5,000 and $9,000 to get your private pilot certificate. Not cheap, but doable. However, your private is just the first step to being a qualified pilot. You’ll need to get your private, instrument, multi-engine, commercial, airline transport (ATP) and probably your certified flight instructor certificate (this could also mean your CFII and MEI) along the way to being qualified. This process will take years. Then, you don’t just need the ratings because since the rules changed in 2013, you’re also required to have 1500 flight hours to prove you’re qualified. Once again, there are many variables, and the cost of being a qualified pilot is now around $65-80,000 on average, but it could cost more. That’s a lot more than disposable income, so only a small percentage of the population can handle these costs. Toss in that airlines want college degrees and you’re looking at $100-150,000 to become a qualified pilot for a commuter airline where average starting salaries are around $22,500 per year. Starting pay at Great Lakes in 2014 was $14,616. In response, commuters are upping their salaries and providing hiring incentives like signing bonuses, but they’re still paltry compared to a pilot’s investment.

Okay, so what? Pilots will always find a way and they still want to be pilots, despite the miserly pay. That still doesn’t explain why the qualified pilot pool has dwindled so fast. Once again, that word qualified is a moving target and Congress suddenly created a gap that didn’t exist before so, let’s go back to that magical 1500 hours. In the past, commuter airlines had traditionally been able to hire first officers with as little as 250 hours and a commercial pilot certificate. Could doesn’t necessarily mean that they did, but they could. Their average first officer had over 500 hours already, so it really wasn’t an issue. Congress’s knee-jerk reaction to the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash brought these major rule changes. It now requires an ATP and 1500 hours to fly as a first officer, up from 250 (even though the pilots in the crash had much more than that). That is a huge gap in minimum qualifications, but for the majors, it didn’t matter. They always hired people with more hours than that (at least over the last twenty years), but this was devastating for the regionals. Yet, they still expect qualified pilots to walk in the door. Their business plans have not included training their own pilots and they still don’t. Yes, they train their pre-qualified pilots extensively, but they don’t provide training to get them to the minimums so they can be hired.

Now, to add the final elements to the storm. In 2007, the FAA pushed the retirement age up to 65, which was great, but the airlines were shortsighted. Airlines were gearing up to hire pilots to replace those retiring, but with the sudden age shift, the hiring slowed and the problem was just pushed down the road. There will be 20,000 airline pilots retiring by 2025 at just the majors. With each retirement, another commuter/regional pilot gets pulled up into the majors, leaving more gaps down below.

Another volatile ingredient is the expansion of corporate aviation. A career in corporate or charter aviation wasn’t even a consideration for the last pilot generation, but this segment has expanded exponentially and lured thousands of pilots away from going to the airlines. The corporate equipment is fast, high tech, the clients are C-level, and the destinations are exotic. There are now airline pilots leaving for careers in corporate aviation.

The final element which has created our storm is the number of pilots coming out of the military. Once a significant source of pilots, it has diminished to a trickle. For contrast, in 1945, there were 12,055,884 active military personnel, in 2011, there were 1,400,000. Not that those people were pilots, but the personality that can handle the self-discipline and demands of the military used to be drawn into the aviation world once their service was complete. Now can you see the storm building?

Cumulonimbus is from the Latin origin cumulus which means “heap”. We have heaped these issues together and created atmospheric instability in the aviation world. It can further develop into a supercell, so we’re going to add a few more issues to uplift and build the storm. We can now all see the storm growing and towering over us, but it hasn’t started raining yet so some say we don’t have anything to worry about. So let’s add a few underlying issue which will trigger this downpour.

Boeing 757 instrument panel - Addressing the Pilot Shortage Problem Facing the Aviation Industry
Photo by: Kent Wien

The lack of new pilots goes back to a societal change which is hard to quantify. Aviation once held the image of glamor, adventure, pride, and travel. Air travel used to be very expensive, elite and most pilots stayed with one or two companies for a career. Pay was extraordinary, pilots were respected and it was a defining career. Airlines were families so loyalty and comradery ran deep. With deregulation in 1978, aviation had to become pure capitalism, which over time created a race to the bottom to provide the cheapest air travel possible. Nothing wrong with that, it’s the American way. It has created millions of jobs and opened up the world to everyone. However, mergers and acquisitions over the last twelve years have taken what had been 10 major U.S. airlines down to four mega-carriers which dominate the market. There really isn’t a lot of difference between them. The new pilot generation that grew up with hijackings, pilot strikes, mergers, bankruptcies, furloughs and 9/11 don’t view aviation like they did a generation before. In this new world of gadgets, computers and innovative technology, the personality that once sought aviation is now being lured away by other industries which didn’t even exist before. They’re offered better pay where there is still a promise of adventure, great benefits, and schedules which provide a reasonable work-life balance…and they don’t have to spend years and tens of thousands of dollars getting there.

What’s the answer? We’re going to have to weather this storm because the world needs pilots. The answer is simply that there needs to be balance. Aviation is about finding the perfect balance and we’ve spent too many years on one side or the other. It begins with the fact that there remains an onerous burden on the pilots to walk in the door of any airline, or Part 135 charter companies, pre-qualified. The United States is going to have to pay attention to the lessons learned in Europe where there have never been enough pilots because general aviation is rare.

You’ll be hearing a lot about Ab Initio training in the future. It’s one idea, but it’s still not balanced. It’s a program where an airline trains their own pilots who have little or no flight time in exchange for a long employment contract, but it has its drawbacks. Having a pilot grind away in the sky with the autopilot on to reach 1500 hours isn’t going to make them better pilots. The commercial aviation industry really needs pilots with a variety of flying experiences. The middle ground to create balance? Pilots might be more willing to go into their own training debt if they know that they’ll be able to pay off their loans once they reach at least the commuters. First-year pay should be worthwhile and the sign-on bonus should be equivalent of what an airline might have to pay to get them to their current qualifications. If they come in the door with 1500 hours and an ATP, first-year pay should reflect that. If they need training and time, then do it, and let the first year pay reflect the burden. At least give the pilot world some options. Think outside the proverbial box. Short term investments for the long term health of an airline can be hard to swallow for Wall Street accountants, but that dark cloud looming is going to cost a lot more once it lets loose.

Regional and commuter airlines are going to have to band together to be realistic in their budgets and ticket pricing. When they bid to the majors, they should all agree that pilot training is part of the price. If it means that each passenger has to pay $10 more to have experienced pilots, it’s well worth the price. The major airlines should realize that it’s an investment in their future employees. If a few hundred hours of good flight experience prevents just one crash, then the return on investment is a million to one. If having a full pilot roster prevents one shutdown, it’s an economic win for everyone.

Being a commercial airline pilot is an extraordinary profession. Factor in all the negatives and it is still one of the most rewarding, challenging and inspiring careers available. It’s truly incomparable to put an extraordinary machine into the air and move billions of people every year to where they want to go. It is the epitome of what the human mind is capable of, and pilots are ultimately in charge of the outcome. The airline industry itself needs to work harder to get the years of tarnish off its image and solve the pilot shortage problem. Despite what the investment board members say, it’s not just about ledgers and numbers. It’s about creating an environment that allows pilots to shine and passengers to enjoy their flight while still putting a smile on an accountant’s face. It is possible if there is a balance, but we’ll all have to change our position to find it.

Featured Image: Kent Wien

Resources and References for the Pilot Shortage Problem:

//www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/disposable-personal-income

//www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=united-states-of-america

//www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/civil_airmen_statistics/

//aviationblog.dallasnews.com/2014/07/alpa-lists-10-airlines-with-lowest-starting-pay.html/

Erika Armstrong
From the front desk of an FBO to the captain's seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She is a professional pilot columnist and her aviation stories can be found in seven national aviation publications. Her book, A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT, is available wherever books are sold.
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