FAA official worries pilot shortage could impact safety

July 19, 2012

Even in uncertain times, Boeing is optimistic for the future of air travel, reporting this month an expected demand for 34,000 new aircraft worth $4.3 trillion over the next two decades.

Boeing and others in the industry also continue to have mounting concern about who will be qualified to fly all those new aircraft. In the latest forecast, presented at the Air Line Pilots Association conference on training and safety July 12, the aircraft maker predicted demand for 460,000 new pilots by 2031, including 69,000 in North America. The forecast is little changed from past editions, and Boeing continues to call for innovation in the training and recruitment of new pilots.

There are mixed views about the implications for U.S. carriers.

“I'm concerned because it has safety implications," John Allen, the FAA's director of flight services, told The Associated Press.

Allen said he is fearful that if there is a shortage, airlines will hire pilots who are technically qualified but don't have the "right stuff."

"If the industry is stretched pretty thin ... that can result in someone getting into the system that maybe isn't really the right person to be a pilot. Not everybody is supposed to be a pilot," Allen said in remarks to The Associated Press.

Airlines for America was quick to respond, noting that safety remains the top priority and pilots are carefully vetted subject to federal training standards.

Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta did not mention “shortage” in a speech at the training and safety convention, focusing instead on rulemaking efforts that address fatigue and pilot training issues--but not recruitment. The economic downturn has left many professional pilots in search of work, and there are differing views on how quickly demand will begin to gain on supply. Some foresee little short-term impact on the U.S. market for flight crews--despite the first “class” of pilots to benefit from the extension of mandatory retirement from age 60 to 65 now reaching age 65.