The GAO report [PDF] found there is an adequate supply of pilots, but there may be a number of other factors that are creating a shortage for smaller airlines.
There are currently 109,465 active pilots with a first class medical certificate that are licensed to fly passengers and more than 100,000 other pilots with commercial licenses that could pursue an airline career in the future. With only about 66,000 pilots working for U.S. airlines, the report found that many may be working abroad, in the military, or in another occupation.
Failure by 11 out of 12 regional airlines to meet hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year may have more to do with the salary offered than with the number of pilots available. The average starting salary for regional airlines is $22,400, well below what major airlines offer.
A lower starting salary isn’t the only reason airline stakeholders are wary of future hiring prospects. Smaller airlines have reported that new FAA regulations have taken a toll on their pilot roster.
In January, regional airlines reported that a new FAA regulation, which requires 10 additional hours of rest for pilots, could mean fewer flight options. In fact, JetBlue grounded hundreds of flights during a winter storm in order to meet the regulation requirements.
Last year, new regulations went into effect that require both captains and co-pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying before being hired by airlines. Prior to the regulation, only captains were required to have 1,500 hours.
While the report found there is currently a sufficient number of pilots available, that could change in the future.
A Bureau of Labor and Statistics employment projection suggests there will be a need to hire between 1,900 to 4,500 pilots each year in the next decade as current pilots retire, the report notes.
Pilot schools interviewed for the report said they have fewer students entering their programs resulting from concerns over the high costs of education and low entry-level pay at regional airlines. The average cost to obtain a commercial pilot certificate and meet flying hour requirements is in excess of $100,000.
Regional airlines are now taking additional steps to attract and retain qualified pilots, the report found. To attract more pilots airlines are increasing recruiting effort and developing partnerships with pilot schools to provide incentives.
Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots [Government Accountability Office]