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Pilot Shortage: Where’d All the Pilots Go?

Line of pilots protesting a possible pilot shortage

The pilot shortage began when deregulation pulled us all away from small town airports.

Flying is, and will always be, expensive and demanding because it is. It can be a hobby or profession, but whether you pay for it, or it pays you, it is an industry that demands respect and self-discipline from its participants. The reasons why 80% of student pilots drop out have also always been the same; lack of money and the high demands of the industry. But, given that it has always been difficult, why are there really 210,000 less licensed pilots now than there were in 1980?

It’s a complex question and there are as many answers as there are pilots. There are thousands of people who say they want to learn how to fly, but there is a disconnection between that statement and actually going out there and pursuing aviation as a career. The common denominator is that it is too expensive to learn how to fly and the financial rewards once you make it, are comparable to minimum wage. An equally significant cost is the perpetual lost time away from spouses and children.

Add in insurance, fuel, consumables, airport fees, taxes, flight physicals, check rides, ground school, books, computers, medical exams, maintenance/annuals, and upgraded required equipment, on top of having to pay a flight instructor, and this is enough for most flight students to walk away, despite their passion to fly. Compound these basic costs with foreign countries sending students to larger American flight schools, and this formula keeps prices high at formal training facilities. All these factors create a high threshold for the up and coming generation of pilots and it’s the main barrier that most can’t get over, no matter how much passion they have to fly. But, what about the carrot that lures the rest to climb over this giant wall? What awaits them once they get there? Is there still an incentive to keep climbing to reach the airlines, or have the airlines lost enough allure that the dreams vanish once pilots start reaching for it?

Pride and the Pilot Shortage

In order to answer that question, it is necessary to pull back from the fundamental details of getting there and relook at the entire industry of the airlines to understand where the true disconnection comes from. The ideology that came from last week’s conference at the International Air Transport Association seals its fate. The airlines have gone from pride to prejudice while riding record global profits for the airline industry.

IATA Logo - are the part of the problem regarding the pilot shortage?

(IATA is playing a part in the pilot shortage)

During this annual meeting of the world’s top airline executives, a buzzword was bantered around by several of the airline CEOs and CFOs: “Discipline”. Discipline means requiring punishment for bad behavior, but in this case, it is code for wanting to cut even more costs and squeezing more money out of passengers. I thought it was ironic that this accountant style leadership used this word to describe their view of what is lacking in the aviation world. It makes me shake my head in shame at what the airlines have become. The formula for failure is simple; take away pride and all you have left is disdain. Take away pride, and the new generation of potential pilots, who learn from the present, will turn towards other possibilities.

What the CEOs forget is that discipline is something you force, not something you earn. With the leaders in aviation thinking this is what we need, the industry is doomed to stumble. What every airline CEO needs to be giving and earning is respect. Respect. Respect for their passengers, their employees and the pride of the industry. Setting up ideas like charging passengers, especially families traveling with children, to reserve a seat together is completely disrespectful and creates an air of shame for the industry. It starts at the top and flows down, no matter what industry it is.

The collapsing of pride over cost is epidemic and the sentiment is retaliated on a wide, but quiet quest by millions of employees. They aren’t doing anything wrong, but they are quietly pushing against the disrespect. It costs the industry exponentially more than just fixing the problem, but it won’t show up directly on their spreadsheets. They just can’t see past the ledger. The best I can do to summarize this complex ideology is to give you just one simple story.

I was a junior captain sitting reserve in MSP so my flying schedule was feast or famine. I was either sitting day after day waiting to fly, or I was on the road for days at a time, never knowing when I’d get home. Crew scheduling would tell me to pack for two days and seven days later, I’d be walking through my front door. It is okay, I accept those terms. The only thing I knew for sure is that I had spent fifteen years, tens of thousands of my own money in training, college, and years of exhausting work and self-discipline to earn a slot in the captain’s seat. In exchange, I received one week of vacation that was assigned to me. I didn’t get to pick when it was, it just showed up on my schedule. Assigned vacation. Either way, I relished knowing I could disconnect from the constant pressures of work.

Not wanting to fight standby status to get on a flight, I purchased a ticket to Miami and reserved a car to get me to Key West.

Beach in Key West - Pilot Shortage: Where Have all the Pilots Gone?

(Image by: Ed Schipul, CC2)

This would put me far away from any major airports. I knew better than to answer my phone on regular days off, but since this was assigned vacation, I had no fear answering it on my second day of vacation. I reflexively cringed when the voice coming through was like getting a call from the Devil himself.

“Hi Erika! This is crew scheduling. Glad I got a hold of you, we have to junior assign you for a trip day after tomorrow.”

“Oh, sorry guys, I’m on assigned vacation. I’m in Key West and not coming home for another five days.”

“Nope, Erika. That’s not how this is going to go. If you don’t come back and fly this trip, you’re fired. You are junior on the captain seniority list, and since you answered your phone, you have to comply.”

“Then, you have to get me back to MSP. My airline ticket can’t be changed and my flight is not for five more days.”

“Nope. Your base is MSP, so you are responsible for getting yourself back to your base. Where you are on vacation is not our problem.”

“I’m on a vacation that was assigned by crew scheduling. I didn’t have a choice. You not hiring enough pilots to cover your flight schedule is your problem, so why do I have to pay for your problem?”

“Do you want your job or not? If you hang up, the next call is to the chief pilot. I promise, if you don’t cover this trip, you’re gone…”

I have self-pride, self-respect and I need my job. I also did dispatching in the past, so I knew how hard it was to get trips covered. To keep a long story short, after paying an extraordinary amount to get home, I made it back to MSP in time for the trip the next morning at 0600. At 2200 hours the night before, I got a call from crew scheduling saying that they did, indeed, find another pilot to cover the trip, so I could continue my vacation days. When I explained what I did to get back for them, their response was basically that it wasn’t their problem.

The Seeds of the Pilot Shortage

So what? It’s just one of many examples of disrespect that have happened to thousands of professional pilots. This happened to me, so how could this affect anything else? It starts by pulling a low-level frustration I had with the company into the cockpit. I was proud of my position, and I have a deep appreciation for my comrades, so I would never do anything to harm my professionalism, but there are things I could and did do which cost the company thousands – enough to pay for another pilot to be there on reserve, and the bean counters will never figure this out because they’ve never been in my seat.

When I first started in the industry, it was a personal challenge to save my company money. It was a collaborative effort because I felt like they were family, so I did everything I could to cut costs. I would always taxi out on one engine, keep the APU off and just use external power/air, fly at the best fuel burn altitudes, take the cheaper hotel rooms, etc…but as the years passed and the industry evolved into “discipline” mentality, rather than respect, then a new attitude entered all of our perspectives. For example, it’s more beneficial for me and my crew to have a little longer flight, so let’s just take on a little extra fuel and fly at the altitude which burns more fuel and takes longer because we get paid a little more. Let’s ride the brakes to earn a few more minutes while we wear away the brake pads. Why hold the airplane for connecting passengers when it’s our last leg and we all have to commute home. My crew wants to catch their flights home too, so why should I care about the passenger who will miss the connection. There are no rules broken, so you can’t “discipline” that, but this changing pride costs the airlines more than what the accountants can plug into their formulas.

Just ask the professional pilots flying right now. They have worked tirelessly for many years, through the perils of flight training, furloughs, commuters, charter, mergers, and company shutdowns. They have flown in the dead of night, in all weather, in many different aircraft and scenarios. Their value is in their experience and it is priceless. They are proud of their accomplishments because they should be. However, read any electronic pilot posting board, where free speech rules and anonymity pulls down the fear of speaking out, and you can see and feel a palpable change in pride for the industry. They are often ashamed of what it has become and what their leaders ask of them. They are ashamed that the “product” they deliver, their passengers, are being charged for a can of Coke while their CEO makes $17.4 million. Pilots understand profit margins, so they have to caveat recommending this industry to new pilots. The next pilot generation is losing the exuberance of its mentors because aviation is currently filled with cynicism, uncertainty and extraordinary expense to family and friends.

The pilot shortage began when deregulation pulled us all away from small town airports, where many pilots began their dreams. 9/11 put a barrier around the rest, followed by shallow accounting leadership over the last decade. Factor in that student pilots no longer have to dream about seeing the world because they have access through their keyboard or other well-paying jobs, and you can understand why those 210,000 people turned away from aviation.

Just a few people with a positive ideology can change the world. The aviation industry begs for leaders who recognize the balance required between honoring this glorious industry, while still making enormous amounts of money. It can be done, but not with a ruler and “discipline”. It will be done with respect, pride and profit. Bring back the pride and you will bring back the pilots.


(Featured Image by: Dan Nguyen, CC2)

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.