Is There a National Pilot Shortage?

Several times during the past two decades, pilot shortages have been forecasted in the United States. But lower than expected growth levels in passenger traffic, in part resulting from economic recessions and the 9/11 attack, along with an increase in pilots’ retirement age to 65 in 2007, have meant that the shortage never materialized. But with regional airlines having trouble attracting new talent, the issue has come up again. The topic was extensively discussed last week at a National Pilot Supply Summit held by The Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies. The summit sought to answer challenging questions such as whether a pilot shortage exists, and if so, what can be done about it?

U.S. airlines currently employ around 72,000 pilots, and predictions for the next decade estimate that approximately 19,000 to 45,000 new pilots will be needed as older pilots retire and airlines expand service. The typical industry career path is for carriers to hire young people with a pilot’s license to fly smaller regional and commuter jets. Younger pilots who wish to advance in their careers must eventually leave the regional carrier and take a lowest level position at a major carrier (including a pay cut). Whereas most pilots used to come from the military before 2001 (about 70%), the pool of available military pilots has shrunk substantially. Regional airlines are now facing difficulties hiring new pilots, and former military pilots only supply about 30% of new hires. Some regional carriers have chosen to park planes due to a lack of available pilots, thus leading some in the industry to say that there is a “shortage”.

The alleged shortage has several causes. For one, the career path is not as appealing as once was. In the “good old days” flying was seen a glamorous job with a good salary, attractive pension benefits, and plenty of free time spent in exotic places. Now salaries are not as attractive, pensions have been slashed during airlines bankruptcies, and flight schedules are kept at the maximum FAA regulations allow. This has made many military pilots to reconsider joining civilian airlines, and instead choose to stay longer periods in the military or find different careers. The Air Force and the Navy have incentivized retaining their pilots by giving retention bonuses in exchange for longer commitments. Further, the military does not require as many pilots as it once did – except for the drone variety – diminishing the pool of available candidates.

Promotions within the industry are not as attractive as in the past due to low starting salaries and more stringent federal regulations. Following the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in Buffalo in 2009, Congress passed legislation requiring a large increase in the number of flight hours needed before becoming a commercial pilot, raising the threshold from 250 hours to up to 1,500 hours, and also imposing a number of new certification requirements that used to be attainable while already a pilot for a regional airlines. Exceptions were created for military pilots, who can qualify at 750 hours, and civilian pilots who earn a degree from approved two-year or four-year college aviation program, qualifying at 1,250 hours and 1,000 hours, respectively. But with salaries for regional pilots starting in the low $20,000s, and with college aviation programs costing up to $50,000 per year plus the required flight time needed to acquire the necessary certifications (1-2 years according to the FAA), it is not hard to imagine why young people might have second thoughts about a career as a pilot.

There was little agreement at the OSU pilot summit about the causes of the alleged pilot shortage. While some argued that the causes were regulatory in nature, with the pilots certification process discouraging new pilots. Others claimed that the issue has more to do with how pilot training is marketed. However, there was strong survey evidence presented that indicates that many licensed pilots have chosen not to become airline pilots for two primary reasons – pay and lifestyle.

This means that the pilot “shortage” points to a larger issue about the future of the airline industry and public policy. A pilot shortage is really just a symptom of the larger problem regarding service to small communities. With airline consolidation and regional carriers operating on razor thin margins, access to smaller communities is already suffering. With continued challenges attracting new pilots, regional carriers might be forced to cut back further. This will further limit small communities’ access to their national airspace, decreasing economic opportunities. Resolving this issue means confronting the larger topic of how to provide service to smaller communities amidst a mature and deregulated airline industry.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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