Airlines Face Worst Pilot Shortage in Decades

Passengers may complain of jam-packed cabins, but it appears the cockpits are not quite so crowded.

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Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Air travel can be torturous enough as it is—with delays, cancellations, lost luggage and expensive tickets—but experts warn that another problem looms on the horizon, threatening to further complicate the commercial airline experience: a pilot shortage. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. airlines are on track to run out of pilots in the near future and are facing the most serious scarcity of trained aviators since the 1960s.

The paper reports that more than half of American pilots are over age 50, and there is a dearth of qualified candidates to fill the cockpits that will be left empty when they retire. The mandatory retirement age for pilots is 65 years old (extended from 60 in 2007), meaning that thousands are expected to leave their careers with no one to replace them, the Journal notes. While the profession saw a boom in new hires in the 1980s, significantly fewer have been hired in the last 10 years, thanks to a combination of tighter regulations, pay cuts and general economic turmoil.

New rules going into effect next summer, based on recommendations from the Federal Aviation Administration, mandate that all newly hired pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience. Captains are already held to this standard, but co-pilots currently only need 250 hours, the New York Times reports — making this the first increase in the co-pilot requirement since 1973.

(MORE: American Plans to Hire 2,500 Pilots)

The spike in the cost and time will take to qualify for the captain’s chair may make the job less appealing, especially because pilots have already grappled with notorious pay reductions and increasingly exhausting schedules.

“Co-pilots, for example, when they go to work for commuter pilots, are poorly paid, overworked, underfed,” Barry Schiff, an aviation expert and former pilot, told ABC News. “They have a tough, tough life, and many of them just give it up.”

In 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who famously landed a U.S. Airways Airbus on the Hudson River, told the House Aviation Subcommittee that pay cuts were deterring talented pilots from pursuing the career. Foreign carriers have become more attractive to experienced American captains, as airlines overseas often offer generous pay to lure them, the Wall Street Journal notes.

According to the Journal, JetBlue Airways Corp.’s chief executive, Dave Barger, said in October that the airline industry is “facing an exodus of talent in the next few years” and may “wake up one day” to find that there is no one to “operate or maintain” the planes.

“We are about four years from a solution, but we are only about six months away from a problem,” Kit Darby, a consultant on pilot-hiring trends, told the Journal.

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Although estimates vary, Darby’s firm calculates that U.S. airlines collectively employ close to 96,000 pilots, but that they will need to hire at least 65,000 more in the next eight years. Since 2004, however, the Journal found that less than 36,000 pilots passed the FAA’s highest test, the Air Transport Pilot exam — a test all pilots will soon be required to pass.

Annual private and commercial pilot certificates have dropped 41 percent and 30 percent respectively over the past decade, the Wall Street Journal reports. The paper cites research from the National Association of Flight Instructors that concluded there is “no feasible way” to “continuously supply qualified pilots for the demand of air carriers.”

The Journal points out that airlines will have to increase their pilot numbers by around 5 percent in 2014, when another new safety rule will require pilots to take more resting time.

American Airlines, which recently announced it will add more international routes next year, said it intends to hire 2,500 pilots over the next five years—although even that may not be enough to maintain its ranks at current levels. The carrier currently employs 8,000 active pilots—down from the 14,000 it had in 2001 after it bought TWA, according to the Associated Press.

(MORE: As Airline Fees Top $36 Billion, Is Relief in Sight for Fee-Weary Travelers?)

The airlines most vulnerable to the shortage’s negative effects are smaller, regional carriers that could have their pilots poached by bigger airlines, the Wall Street Journal reports. The paucity, however, may soon cause all airlines to cut back on flights.

According Journal, the FAA’s head of flight standards, John Allen, described the predicted retirement figures as “astounding and dramatic” and he said the FAA does not have “a system to address this issue.”

Although carriers could theoretically raise salaries to attract new pilots, most airlines are simultaneously struggling with narrowing profits, rising fuel costs and unsteady consumer demand, the Journal notes.

Some suspect that carriers will eventually rely more on technology than on human pilots, but ABC News reports that airline executives are so concerned about the shortage that they held a “pilot supply summit” last week.

While passengers may still complain of jam-packed cabins, the cockpits now appear decidedly less crowded.

MORE: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner Makes ‘Awesome’ Maiden U.S. Voyage

7 comments
JonathanRolle
JonathanRolle

I took the time to comment because this conversation is everywhere and no one has suggested the alternative that is done in other countries. In many other coutries the airline runs a flying academy, where they select only the best of the best to train and groom to fly their planes. The academy is free to the student but they have to sign a 5 yr employment agreement. These regionals could certainly buy some single engine and multi engine planes, set up a stringent entrance program (probably to get in you need to have all your licenses CPL,PPL etc.). Have their cadets  build the required hours for free and make them sign a 5yr employment contract. Hopefully some regional CEO or Cheif pilot somehwere is reading

ChadCasale
ChadCasale

$18,000 per year as a regional co pilot and upwards of $150k to get all certifications and type ratings required. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a career as a pilot doesn't pay. Plus, you used to get experience as a co pilot and worked your hrs to become a Capt. Now, the same requirements apply for both which may increase safety but puts a career out of reach. Every time the gov't gets involved things go downhill..

astralartist
astralartist

Also, the aviation part of a college degree, or private aviation training  is not eligible for govt student loans.  So the student must bear then entire cost usually.  I'm a nurse, and looked into it this winter, and realized that I could not afford it.

GeorgePokorny
GeorgePokorny

Companies don't want to pay the wages it takes in a free-market economy. Then when they mess it up, they like to play the blame-game. The 'FAA does not have system to fix this issue', WHY is this the F'ing governments problem? I read a story about 'lack of quality candidates' at least once a month. You know what they ALL have in common? Stagnant or declining wages. How about not going cheap on someone controlling a 10+ million dollar piece of equipment and has the lives of 100s of people in his/her hands?

SamJeanSamaha
SamJeanSamaha

As someone with 20 years in the industry, and only as of recently gainfully employed at a good paying airline. I can tell you the biggest problem isn't a shortage of pilots.... it's a shortage of pilots willing to work for meager wages...  this is we're talking about primarily a "Regional Airline" problem... they're the one's with the notorious work rules and pay.  You won't ever find a shortage of pilots at the legacy airlines like American, Delta, United, Alaska, Hawaiian or USAir...  And certainly never at Fedex or UPS!

DawnRodriguez
DawnRodriguez

This is funny.  When the corporations decided to cut pay for pilots, this was inevitable.  They don't see past their next dollar, do they?  Raising pay and benefits might attract new pilots.  I remember watching a pilot on the news about ten years ago saying he would not recommend his job to young people, because of the low pay and long hours.  Sometimes, you get what you pay for.

Carolyn
Carolyn

It would seem to me this is truly a national problem, if not even an emergency.   Would it be possible to have the airlines and government cooperate to help pay the exorbitant education expenses for students entering aeronautics schools?  These degrees are not only very difficult to earn, with flight time and exam times in addition to regular (rigorous) coursework, but also very expensive, and with limited schools available.  If pay is dropping as well, there must be other incentives for young people to take on this grueling career if we are to have the benefit of their service.  Help with education costs would be a good start.  As Siemens has found, the company benefits by mentoring and educating career-ready and committed interns rather than just hoping for their high-tech needs to be met by students graduating with general degrees and then still having to be trained.  Investing up front gives big payoffs.  I can hear the protests of "socialism" and "handouts" already, but if having pilots is a national priority, and there are smart students willing to serve in this high pressure career, we need to do what it takes to help get them through the expensive maze to become qualified.  As it is now, many must incur horrendous debt in order to get this education and training.