ALPA, the largest airline union, says there is no pilot shortage. Academic economists would agree with them, as shortages in economics are really pricing issues. We’ve seen the same thing related to other labor shortages, as just turn on the TV and you’ll hear someone say “if wages go up, people will return to work.” This works in an economics classroom and in academic papers, but isn’t as clean in the real world. It takes more than just a pay increase.
In practical terms, there is a real pilot shortage in the U.S., and it is affecting the regional and smaller airlines the most. That’s because this is where many pilots begin their commercial careers and so moving up to a bigger airline is a natural step. Pilot pay has risen dramatically in the last 12 months at many airlines, including at the regionals. This is a logical and practical step to attract and retain needed pilots. But it is not enough. Here are five more things the U.S. airline industry should also push:
Supercharge The Ab Initio Training Programs
Almost every airline in the U.S. has created academies to train pilots. Some programs are more robust than others. Most of these programs are small or limited, however. Airlines need to adopt a mindset that these programs are the key to re-building the pilot pipeline. This means a big increase in investments for recruitment, and for ways to address the financial burden of getting an Air Transport Pilot License (ATP).
The cost to earn the ATP for someone starting from scratch is over $100,000. This is a prohibitive amount of money for many, so there are a lot of people who would make good pilots that never seriously consider the career. The airline-based programs can address this through a combination of scholarships, loans, and other support. Airlines should start with a goal in mind: how many trained pilots should we produce every quarter or year to ensure our pipeline? Then, invest in what it will take to meet this goal.
Widen The Net
Pilots in the U.S. today are 92% male and 87% white. There is no profession screaming more loudly for a major widening of the recruitment net. Anyone who is healthy, reasonably intelligent, and mentally stable can be trained to efficiently fly a modern aircraft. In the 1960s, the U.S. trained Laotian people who had never even used modern machinery to fly the T-28 aircraft successfully. Yet today, being a pilot is not a serious consideration in the U.S. for most women, and almost anyone who is not white.
This has to start in elementary schools and in major media. Today, TV commercials are showing more Black and bi-racial couples and this is making these images more common to everyone. TV shows and media need to show women and people of color in pilot roles, and students when young need to be encouraged about this career as a rewarding and lucrative option. This will take time, but the industry should set specific goals track success against these goals.
It should not be hard to improve given the starting point. Minor improvement isn’t enough, though. While it make take decades, the industry should accept nothing less than to have a pilot population that looks like the people they are carrying.
Support Raising The Retirement Age
In 2007, the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots was increased from age 60 to age 65. This has been credited with giving a pause to what was then seen as a coming shortage of pilots. There is now legislation offered to raise the age further from 65 to 67. U.S. airlines should rally around this idea.
We all know 50-year olds that aren’t healthy enough to drive a car let alone fly a plane, and 70+ year olds that are fit and mentally strong. The point is that age matters but doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Pilots undergo regular medical examinations and the frequency of these could even increase as age increases. This protects us all by helping to ensure that those with any physical or cognitive decline stop flying commercial airplanes. But mandatory retirement at age 65 denies some the right to continue to earn a living, and doesn’t on its own make the skies safer. It is the mandatory retirement age plus the ongoing medical reviews that does this.
The pragmatism of the move to age 67 is that it gives the U.S. airlines the time to build up their cadet programs rather than lose qualified pilots just when they are needed.
Flow Through Seniority
Today, most regional airlines fly for a major U.S. airline. Your ticket may say Delta Airlines, but the flight may be flown by Republic Airlines. Theses relationships have been win-wins for both the large airline and the regional. The large airline gets feed from smaller cities into their hubs, and the regional airline gets paid a fixed margin above their cost of service to operate efficiently and safely. Most regionals have no commercial function, as it is the big airline that markets and sells the seats offered by the regional carrier.
After a few years of flying, a regional airline pilot has a choice to stay at the regional airline, move to a low-cost airline like JetBlue to fly bigger planes, or move to a large multi-national airline to start a long career that could end with them flying large planes around the world. But when they make this choice, they start over new with their airline and begin as the lowest-seniority pilot in the system. Seniority affects quality of life, as it affects how pilots bid for flights among other things. This creates an incentive to leave the regional carrier quickly.
Change the incentive, and change the behavior. If regional pilots could choose the major airline they want to work for before they actually make the move, they could potentially start earning seniority at the bigger airline while still flying for the regional. Of course the pilots union at the bigger airline would have to agree with this. By allowing their seniority to flow-through to the bigger airline this way, it lessens the urgency to leave the regional airline too soon. This idea could be another win-win for the airline and pilot’s union.
Lobby To Revise The 1500-Hour Rule
As a reaction to the crash of a Colgan Air flight in 2009, the minimum flight hours necessary to be hired into a commercial airline role was raised from 250 to 1,500. Everyone wants those moving into the right seat of a commercial airplane to be ready for this responsibility. The 1,500 hour threshold is arbitrary, however, and in over 10 years this has not been matched by any other country in the world. This makes the U.S. uncompetitive, and has made earning an ATP license prohibitively expensive for many people.
There are ways today to start flying with fewer than 1,500 hours based on the quality of training. But a formal relaxation of the 1,500 hour rule, maybe to 750 hours, would improve the competitiveness of our industry, reduce the financial burden to choose this career, and there is no evidence that this would compromise safety.
There is no single solution to ensuring that there are enough pilots to meet the needs of the flying public for the next decades. Along with pay increases, the ideas here would all contribute to a vibrant, diverse and robust pilot pipeline.