Airlines Could Start Running Out Of New Pilots By Decade’s End

Image courtesy of Don Buciak II

For years, regional airlines, government agencies, and pilot groups have warned that new regulations, higher costs of school, and lower salaries had led to a shortage of pilots that could affect the number of flights smaller carriers are able to offer. It now appears that this scarcity of youngsters hoping to someday take flight could result in airlines beginning to run out of pilot in as few as three years.

Bloomberg, citing a study by the University of North Dakota’s Aviation Department, reports that as more pilots reach the mandatory age of retirement – and fewer young fliers enter commercial aviation – the pilot deficit could soar to 15,000 in 10 years.

The shortage was illustrated earlier this year when regional carrier Republic Airways, which provides short-haul flights for several major airlines, filed for bankruptcy citing the ongoing regional pilot shortage.

As a Government Accountability Office report found in 2014, many would-be pilots have changed their career paths when faced with the stiff requirements and time-consuming, expensive process tied to flying commercially.

While most major airlines aren’t losing pilots at an exponential rate yet, they are worried that the lack of people seeking to become pilots with smaller regional airlines — those that bring passengers from smaller airports to hub airports — will create a trickle up effect, as smaller operators typically create a hiring pool for major carriers.

“That is one of the things in my job I get to worry about every day and when I go to bed at night,” Greg Muccio, a senior manager at Southwest Airlines Co., tells Bloomberg.

According to the University of North Dakota study, would-be pilots cited three reasons for their decision to change career paths: the cost of flight training and certification; low pay at regional airports; and regulatory changes to the hours required before becoming a first officer.

Now, major carriers are trying to alleviate the shortage by changing the way they hire new pilots, making benefits packages and salaries more attractive.

For example, Bloomberg reports, some airlines are boosting signing bonuses at regional carriers they own and partnering with flight schools and university aviation programs to make the process more affordable.

A focus on regional airline pilot compensation makes sense for major carriers, as the 2014 GAO report found that failure by 11 out of 12 regional airlines to meet hiring targets for entry-level pilots 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.

American Airlines’ regional carriers — Envoy, Piedmont and PSA airlines — recently increased signing bonuses to $15,000, while Delta’s Endeavor regional carrier now pays a signing bonus of $23,000.

As for the cost of training, Bloomberg reports that flight-training fees for a commercial aviation major total about $64,500 at the University of North Dakota, the largest public aviation program in the U.S. However, that figure is just for fees, it doesn’t include tuition or room and board.

To help lessen some of these costs, Southwest tells Bloomberg that it had dropped a requirement that pilot applicants hold a certificate to fly Boeing 737s. The certificate can cost as much as $14,000.

JetBlue began a program earlier this year, dubbed Gateway Select, that aims to recruit would-be pilots with no flying experience. These recruits are tested and then placed in a four-year study program.

In addition to lower compensation and high training costs, airlines also say the shortage in pilots is tied to a lack of interest.

“The biggest problem is a general lack of interest in folks pursuing this as a career anymore. That’s what puts us in the most jeopardy,” Muccio tells Bloomberg.

And so the airline is trying to get in early with future pilots. Muccio says that he’s spending more time visiting colleges, high schools, and elementary schools trying to interest students in a flying career.

Shrinking Pool of Future Pilots Keeps Major Airlines on Edge [Bloomberg]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.