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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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.

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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.

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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.

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