Higher airfares. More delays and cancellations. Fewer flights at smaller airports. It's hard to imagine, but air travel could soon get even more frustrating—and it’s not for the usual reasons, like packed-to-the-gills planes or airlines’ penchant for overscheduling flights at big airports.
The reason behind this downbeat scenario? A brain drain in the cockpits of commercial airlines, which can be attributed to an aging pilot base: The mandatory retirement for pilots worldwide ranges from 60 to a maximum of 65 at U.S. airlines, and since baby boomers make up about half of the pilot population at most carriers, that milestone is catching up to many of them at the same time. In a recent speech, the acting head of the FAA, Daniel Elwell, warned of a “tsunami of retirements” that will occur in the next five to ten years and deplete the ranks of commercial pilots. Boeing, in a recent forecast, predicted that the aviation industry worldwide will need 790,000 new pilots in the next 20 years. Airbus, for its part, says that 540,000 new pilots will be needed in that timeframe. Numbers aside, the case is clear: "The pilot shortage is real,” says John Goglia, an aviation safety consultant and former National Transportation Safety Board member.
Already, some travelers are feeling the squeeze. Earlier this year, Horizon Air, part of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group, had to slash hundreds of flights because it didn’t have enough pilots to keep up its schedule. In 2018, the pilot shortfall in the U.S. could reach 2,000 jobs—and in the next five years, it could reach 5,000 or more.
But just who will fill those vacancies is less obvious. Traditionally, more than three-quarters of commercial pilots came from the military, according to the airlines and the FAA; Uncle Sam, in effect, paid for the training. Now, roughly a third of pilots are drawn from the armed forces, and the alternative—private flight schools—requires a substantial six-figure investment and serious sacrifice, given the low starting salaries for junior pilot jobs, which can fall in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, annually.
"THE UNITEDS AND DELTAS ARE NOT HAVING A PROBLEM FINDING PILOTS. BUT THEY ARE SUCKING UP THE TALENT FROM EVERYONE ELSE.”
Of course, this all could have been foreseen given the demographics of the pilot workforce. But for various reasons (9/11 and the 2008-2009 recession being two big ones) the pilot exodus didn’t materialize overnight; instead, there was a surplus when the biggest airlines laid off pilots during the lean years. And ten years ago, it was further forestalled when the pilots’ retirement age was extended by the FAA from 60 to 65, in part to stave off a wave of retirements. “That bought a little more time, but it didn’t fix the fundamental problem,” Goglia says.
But many pilots groups are pushing back, saying there’s no reason the airlines can’t find enough pilots to fill vacancies if they’ll pay enough to attract good candidates. “There is no pilot shortage in the United States,” said the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents more than 60,000 members working for 34 airlines in the U.S. and Canada, in a statement. “Airlines that have increased pay, benefits, and quality of life have had no difficulty hiring qualified pilots.”
Still, the staffing situation won’t affect all airlines in the same way—and likewise, it will play out differently for travelers, depending on which airline you’re flying and where you’re going. Here, some trends that bear watching:
Regional airlines and some foreign lines will feel the pinch
“The Uniteds and Deltas are not having a problem finding pilots,” says Goglia, noting that these now-profitable behemoths have raised pay levels and benefits. “But they are sucking up the talent from everyone else.” Regional airlines now offer higher pay and even signing bonuses, but turnover will remain high, since these companies are seen as a gateway to a more lucrative job at a big airline. Some airlines in Asia and Africa are also seeing a talent exodus—it's gotten to a critical level in India, for example, in part because the aviation industry is booming, and also because some carriers in the Middle East and China are paying more than double what many Indian carriers do, reports Economic Times. And in Europe, budget lines like Ryanair are seeing a similar rate of defections.
In the U.S., smaller markets served by commuter and budget lines will feel the pinch the most. Last year, regional airlines were only able to hire half of the pilots they needed to operate their schedules—and 50 percent of all departures in the U.S. are on these small-fry lines, according to the Regional Airline Association. In fact, when two regionals, Republic and SeaPort, filed for bankruptcy in 2016, they cited the pilot shortage as a factor. Denver-based Great Lakes Airlines also gave the same reason for its decision to shut down earlier this year. And if flights are curbed at smaller and mid-size airports, fares inevitably rise. “It’s going to reduce the potential growth of the industry—and impact our national economy,” said the FAA's Elwell.
Safety concerns will take center stage
It was aviation safety that actually drove the changes that contributed to the pilot shortage. It took two airline crashes within a few weeks of each other in 2009 to illustrate the importance of pilot experience. First came Capt. Sully Sullenberger, who made his splash landing in the Hudson on a frigid January day; all passengers aboard the US Airways jet survived. Then, in February, a Colgan Air turboprop crashed outside of Buffalo, killing all 49 people aboard. The investigation revealed that the two pilots were relatively junior, poorly paid (one earned less than $20,000 a year), and were sleep deprived when they took the controls of the plane.
As a result, Congress in 2010 raised the minimum requirements to fly a scheduled airline flight from 250 hours to 1,500 hours, a significant bar that airlines have blamed for the difficulties in recruiting new pilots. And later in 2014, the FAA raised the minimum required rest time between flights from eight hours to ten; airlines say that means they need up to eight percent more pilots to simply fly the same schedule.
Some fear that the airlines will use the pilot shortage to push for relaxation of the 1,500-hour rule. It would be strongly opposed by pilots and many safety advocates, as the rule already has some exceptions cutting the number of hours required, for pilots who have military flight experience or who trained in university programs. (Airline unions also oppose any easing of the rules, and they’ve got a strong argument for their side: the positive safety record of U.S. airlines in the last decade since the minimum qualifications for pilots were first tightened eight years ago.) Another idea would be to extend the retirement age, again, to 67. “There’s nothing wrong with older pilots,” says Mark Weiss, a retired commercial airline pilot who is now a safety consultant. “If you are sharp enough to pass your annual check ride, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
In-house flight schools become an answer
But the other solution—for the industry to train more pilots—is already here. “Airlines need to consider forming their own pipeline,” says one pilot who currently flies for a major airline. The Lufthansa group, for one, already has a program allowing pilots in training to defer their tuition costs; Emirates opened its own training academy last year, and Qantas and AirAsia have similar initiatives. U.S. airlines will need to begin recruiting and training their own pilot candidates, and are slowly starting to: In April, American announced the American Airlines Cadet Academy, a new flight school, with the intent of recruiting the next generation of pilots.
This article has been republished from www.cntraveler.com