On the Road

A shortage of pilots? Really?

November 14, 2012

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A shortage of pilots? Really? At least one influential aviation figure begs to differ. Retired airline captain-turned-aviation-analyst, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- yes, that "Sully" -- says the airlines are crying wolf, trying to get regulators to back down from new entry requirements for commercial pilots.
It's a long expensive road from a private pilot license to an Air Transport Pilot certificate and an $18,000 income as a first officer at a regional airline. Photo by Jim Park
It's a long expensive road from a private pilot license to an Air Transport Pilot certificate and an $18,000 income as a first officer at a regional airline. Photo by Jim Park


The airlines are suggesting that if the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't back down from new pilot training requirements and/or change the mandatory pilot retirement age of 65, the industry will have to cut service to smaller centers, restrict the number of flights offered to passengers and possibly close some regional feeder airlines (See Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge's blog on the topic).

On a recent CBS News report, Sullenberger suggests the airline industry is trying to create a crisis for its own benefit.

"This is not a surprise to anyone," CBS quoted Sully. "You know, we've known since December 2007 what the mandatory age for retirement for pilots was going to be. We've known these rules were coming for several years. In fact, in congressional testimony this year, regional airline association officials, in response to a congressional question, indicated that they fully expected by August of 2012, which has passed, that their member airlines would be completely compliant with the airline transport pilot license requirement in the new rule.

"As a matter of fact, they further say that out of their 18,000 regional pilots, only 100 might not be, and that's because they haven't yet reached the age of 23, which is one of the requirements."

Giving the airline the benefit of the doubt, it costs an astronomical amount of money to train a pilot. But a major portion of that is borne by pilots themselves in the early years. Getting from a private pilot license to a commercial pilot rating takes thousands of hours on many types of aircraft. Just earning the credential to fly passenger planes can set a potential pilot back $75,000. And with that, pilots can get jobs with regional airlines that pay $18,000 -- yes, $18,000 -- a year for entry-level positions.

Once in the door, the training costs become the airlines'. Pilots hope to advance to larger and more complex aircraft, and that takes time and money. When a pilot has earned the required number of hours, the major airlines snag them away from the regional carriers, leaving those smaller airlines with little opportunity to recoup their training investment. Not surprisingly, the regional carriers invest no more than they need to in their pilots.

The crash of a Colgan Air regional airliner in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people in 2009 changed all that. The investigation revealed genuine inadequacies in pilot training, and prompted the call for a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying time before a pilot could become a first officer.

A new FAA rule would require first officers flying in passenger operations to hold an Air Transport Pilot certificate, which requires 1,500 hours of flight time. Currently, first officers are required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires only 250 hours.

The pilot shortage hasn't exactly caught the airlines by surprise. They could have guessed the supply of pilots would dry up pretty quickly when the cost of getting a foot in the door was four or five times as much as a pilot could earn in the first few years in the right-hand seat.

Sullenberger told CBS News the airlines have the means to solve their own problem: "When the airlines create working conditions and have wages that will attract qualified, experienced pilots, they will have enough applicants."

Parallels with Trucking

I can't help but see the parallels to our own labor woes. Trucking has been harping about a driver shortage for almost 15 years. The sky hasn't fallen yet, but driver wages and working conditions in the truckload sector haven't changed much, either.

In the same CBS News story, travel editor Peter Greenberg hit the nail on the head. "You can't create a crisis and say 'it's an economic impact, we're going to have a problem' when you've known about it for a long time. ..."

In aviation, as in trucking, there has been plenty of opportunity to solve the problem.

I attended my first "trucking conference" back in 1995. I was still driving then, and just breaking into the journalism side of the business. My first editor assigned me to cover the conference. It was the Ontario Trucking Association's annual shindig, held in November of that year. One of the speakers at the conference was noted demographer David Foot. He was about to publish a book called "Boom, Bust, & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift."

In the book, Foot lays out the principles of demographics (the study of statistical characteristics of a population) and shows how aging generations of people will follow predictable patterns of development as they age, and how upcoming generations will be affected, as they age, by trends they experience in youth. Foot forecast trucking's driver shortage, as well as labor shortages in other sectors based on young peoples' emerging preferences and social influences.

(I don't think Foot saw, then, globalization, ipads, smartphones, social media, or many other influences that have exacerbated our labor troubles. In 1995, the Internet was still an emerging technology.)

He saw, too, how sectors with aging populations, like trucking, would have difficulty attracting talent in a world that was shifting very quickly from a labor-based workforce to a technology based workforce. Foot said then, in 1995, that trucking would be scrambling to find help by the last years of that decade, and the problem would continue to worsen unless the industry did something to make the job more attractive to young people.

If it weren't so potentially tragic, I'd call it amusing that as far back as 1995 -- and probably even earlier than that -- trucking knew it had a problem on its hands. The industry has failed to deal with it in a meaningful way in the passing years, and now the chickens have come home to roost.

Related Stories:

10/11/2012 Back to the Future: The Current and Coming Driver Shortage

8/3/2012 How many drivers do we really need?

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Author Bio

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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