02 Apr 2014

What’s Behind the Pilot Shortage?



At the end of February, the Government Accountability Office published a 61-page report, “Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots”. Created in response to a request from Congress, the GAO’s report investigated claims of an airline pilot shortage—either in-progress, or on its way. The report concluded that there is “mixed” evidence for a shortage of pilots.
However, that’s only when looking at the overall picture. Major carriers on national routes have no trouble finding pilots—at least for the time being. Meanwhile, at the regional level, it’s a different story.


Regional Pilot Hiring Woes


Regional airlines fly 22% of all U.S. airline passengers, and are usually subsidiary companies of a major airline carrier. The GAO report found that 11 of 12 regional airlines had trouble meeting pilot needs within the previous year. Adding further weight to the evidence of a shortage was the low unemployment rate for airline pilots compared to the economy as a whole.
While the national unemployment rate has hovered around 8% since the 2008 recession hit, the New York Times reports that airline pilots enjoy an unemployment rate of only 2.7%. This means that nearly all airline pilots who can be hired are being hired. So what is behind the scrambling for pilots at regional airlines?

Contributing Factors

As with so many issues facing the aviation sector, one contributing factor to the pilot shortage is the result of regulations. First, the 2007 Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act raised the forced retirement age from 60 to 65. This may have temporarily delayed a wave of retirements that would have led to more jobs opening up. (Even with the new age limit, the major airlines still stand to lose about 18,000 pilots between now and 2020, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek article).

Second, the 2009 Colgan Flight 3407 disaster, in which a regional jet crash killed 50 people, revealed a need for revision of training and rest requirements for pilots. This led to the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which increased the number of flight hours needed to fly for an airline from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. As a result, it is taking longer for new pilots to reach the threshold at which they become able to compete for jobs.

Another factor—one touched on in the GAO report—is the issue of pay. Regional airlines share revenues with their parent companies, and as a result are not always able to offer competitive salaries to entry-level pilots.

What Airlines Can Do

It’s inevitable that the shortage now affecting regional airlines will soon “trickle up” to the national carriers. Meanwhile, there are steps that can be taken. Regional airlines can work with their national partners to re-negotiate revenue sharing, freeing up more money for signing bonuses or better salaries.

They can also work with flight schools, creating partnerships that help pay for the cost of pilot training in exchange for a contract commitment. Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently announced such a partnership with American Eagle Airlines. Known as the “Pilot Pipeline”, the program sees American Eagle offering up to $10,000 towards the cost of training to new hires who sign a two-year contract after graduation from Spartan. The student gains a job, and the airline gains a well-trained, entry-level pilot.

What You Can Do
If you’re a flight student, there are steps you can take to make yourself as hireable as possible.

  • Get your ratings and certificates. It goes without saying that you need to get your commercial pilot’s license and your instrument rating. Also consider getting a Certified Flight Instructor rating. The hours you clock as a CFI can count towards your 1,500 hours.
  • Get your degree. Earn your associate’s at the very least. If you know you want to work for a major aircraft carrier, get your bachelor’s, too—the Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that most major airline pilots have one. As an added bonus, it’s possible to earn a restricted ATP license after 1,000 hours of flight time if you hold a bachelor’s, meaning you can get on the airline career ladder a little earlier.
  • Make the grade. Make the effort to excel in your training. Partnerships between regional airlines and flight schools, like the Spartan College American Eagle Pilot Pipeline, only consider students who earned a GPA above 2.5. If flying really, truly is your passion, don’t settle for scraping by—do your best to be the best.