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Why Is There A Pilot Shortage?

Date: July 13, 2022

BY JENNIFER ALSEVER, Fast Company

Head to any airport this summer, and you’ll likely find brutally long security lines and a wave of cancellations and delayed flights. On the Fourth of July holiday weekend alone, more than 12,000 flights were delayed and hundreds canceled due to bad weather, high fuel prices, inflation, and staffing shortages.

The biggest challenge for airlines across the country? A shortage of pilots. Major airlines are trying to hire 12,000-13,000 this year and in 2023, and approximately 8,000 in 2024. Frontier Airlines is recruiting from Australia. Delta Air Lines dropped its four-year degree requirement for pilots. And American Airlines has plans to hire 4,000 pilots by 2023. A significant slowdown in the economy may affect their future hiring plans.

The shortfall has prompted pilot unions to demand raises and operational changes in recent weeks that have left them feeling overworked and overtired, posing serious safety concerns.

“It’s an intense job,” says Henry H. Harteveldt, a longtime aviation analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, “and there aren’t enough of them.”

So what, exactly, is behind the pilot shortage?

1. BOOMERS ARE RETIRING

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all pilots to take their last flight by their 65th birthday, and they cannot fly again after that no matter their health or ability. Most pilots are retiring because of age: At least 5,773 retire each year because they hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. By 2029, not a single baby boomer will be able to legally fly commercial aircraft, says Mark Baier, CEO at Aviation Manuals and an aviation safety expert and licensed commercial pilot.

There’s talk about a proposal to raise the retirement age by two years to age 67, which would allow more pilots to continue flying. Younger pilots likely would prefer to keep the rule in place, because they stand to get promoted and bumped up in pay, says Harteveldt.

2. THE PANDEMIC SHRANK THE WORKFORCE

In April 2020, the number of airline passengers fell 96% in a single day, prompting airlines to worry about their survival. Until the CARES Act was passed to help employers keep employees on the payroll, some airlines sold and retired aircraft, and some airlines, including Delta and American Airlines, cut a third of their staff. Airlines offered early retirement packages to senior pilots, some of whom were making anywhere from $250,000 to $400,000 a year. Today, if those pilots returned to flying, they’d lose seniority and start at the bottom of the pay scale.

3. BECOMING A PILOT TAKES TIME

It usually takes three years to accumulate the necessary 1,500 hours of flying time required to apply for an air transport pilot license, which is needed to fly a commercial airliner or commercial cargo plane. After an airline crash in 2009, the FAA increased the required hours to 1,500 from 250. There’s some talk about reducing the number of hours for a license amid the shortage, but changing this rule could be political, because no one wants to be responsible for an airline crash caused by lack of training.

4. GETTING A PILOT’S LICENSE IS EXPENSIVE

Getting a private pilot’s license costs about $10,000, up 35% from the 1970s, which is often considered a golden age of general aviation. “Flying used to be a more affordable hobby and so more people were able to participate in it, but it’s not really anymore,” says Mark Baier, CEO at Aviation Manuals and an aviation safety expert and licensed commercial pilot.
A commercial pilot license is far more: It can cost up to $100,000, which can be a big barrier to people pursuing the profession. With that in mind, American Airlines recently began offering financing to help people train to become pilots for the airline.

5. EVERYONE ELSE ACROSS THE WORLD NEEDS PILOTS, TOO

In the past, airlines would recruit directly from the military, but even the U.S. Air Force is facing a shortage of pilots. Airlines across the globe are aggressively recruiting, as are regional airlines and cargo airlines like UPS and FedEx.

It’s easier for large airliners like American Airlines, Delta, United, and Southwest to recruit than it is for smaller airlines. But they typically draw from regional airlines—some of which those same airlines own. That will ultimately erode the number of short trips flown across the nation. Regional airlines have already dropped, or will end, service to more than 50 U.S. cities by November 1.

“It’s a Darwinian environment where the survival of the financially fittest wins,” says Harteveldt.

6. U.S. AIRLINES ARE ONLY NOW STARTING TRAINING SCHOOLS

For years, foreign airlines, such as Lufthansa and Japan Airlines, have recruited people with no experience and trained them to be pilots. It wasn’t until the past few months that United jumped into the business of training a pipeline of future pilots. It took over a program in Goodyear, Arizona, once run by Lufthansa, and renamed it Aviate Academy. In 2018, American Airlines started its own American Airlines Cadet Academy, which has four locations, 650 cadets and 90 graduates. Other academies, including Delta’s Propel program and Skyborne Academy, are also quickly training new pilots.

Yet even after those pilots are trained, it could be three to four years before the first wave of new pilots start showing up in airplanes.

THE TAKEAWAY

The shortage will continue to be problematic over the next 18 to 24 months, says Harteveldt. Regional routes will start to disappear, smaller airlines will struggle, and new airlines won’t likely be able to get started. The result is less choice and possibly less competition, and potentially higher airfare and continued cancellations and delays. But each month, Harteveldt predicts, there’s a possibility that flights will get incrementally better.

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