Can the United States provide enough pilots to meet industry needs in the coming years? Industry officials debated the question of whether a pilot shortage is imminent or a reality at a panel discussion on April 28.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s February 2014 study on pilot supply and demand “basically concluded we could not see a pilot shortage in the near term,” said Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation policy at GAO. Dillingham spoke at the National Pilot Supply Summit, hosted by the Center for Aviation Studies at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
Dillingham acknowledged that, even as GAO examined labor force indicators, other factors are having an impact on pilot supply, such as reduced numbers of military pilots coming into the civilian pipeline. He said he doesn’t believe the 1,500-hour rule for airline transport pilot certification has been the prime driver, however. “I would not support that notion,” he said, because the rule can be modified in any number of ways” to reduce the number of hours required to hold a restricted ATP certificate, he said. He said the rule was definitely a contributing factor, “but not as much as some would have us believe that all of a sudden this was going to cause people not to go into aviation training…We didn’t find any evidence that was the case.”
Even so, the regional carriers will continue to have difficulty filling pilot slots, Dillingham said. “A shortage is a shortage. If you’re saying the regionals can’t fill their slots, that is a shortage,” he said.
The RAND Corp.’s report on pilot supply and demand found that demand for pilots for the major airlines is already above 3,000 pilots per year and will stay between 3,000 and 4,000 per year until the year 2020, when it will then rise to 4,000 to 5,000 pilots per year, according to research fellow Mike McGee. The so-called “minors” (defined in the report as including regional carriers plus Part 135 operators) will need more than 5,000 pilots per year by 2018; 6,000 by 2020; and 7,000 by 2021, he said.
McGee said the longevity of this projected hiring spree is something the industry has never experienced—a 15-year hiring spree above 3,000 pilots per year. Two-thirds of the demand is driven by mandatory airline hiring, he said. “Even if there is zero growth at the majors, you’re still going to see a significant hiring increase that will last for the next 15 years.”
Everyone is seeing flight cancelations at the regional airlines, and many regionals don’t have enough applicants to fill their slots, McGee said. “From a policy perspective, one of the major things we saw is…there needs to be a cradle-to-grave career path for pilots. We expect some of the major airlines, if they do not own a regional, over the next few years will look at not only expanding [flow-through] agreements but maybe buying their own regional to ensure they have their own pipeline,” he said.
It’s no secret that general aviation—a prime source of future airline pilots—has a pilot shortage, said George Perry, senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute. GA has been losing 6,000 private pilots per year for the last decade, he said. AOPA has been working to reverse this trend, he said, pointing to the association’s advocacy at national and local levels on such issues as medical certification reform and many programs associated with growing and nurturing the pilot population.
The cost of entry to flying is a significant barrier, and costs have never been higher, Perry said. “In the 1970s, a Cessna training aircraft cost 1.5 times the national income,” he said. “Now it is 4.5 times that much.” The entry-level pay for a regional airline first officer—in many cases $30,000 or less—contrasted with large amounts of college loan debt “make the career hard to justify,” he said.
“In the air transportation ecosystem, GA is the foundation that provides airlines with a labor force,” Perry said. However, “the health of GA has not proven to be a high priority for policy makers,” he said. “The truth is to sustain a strong transportation system, GA must also be viable to help future pilots take a first step” to their career paths.
The Air Line Pilots Association does not believe there is a shortage of certificated pilots, ALPA Aviation Safety Chairman Chuck Hogeman said. “The big ‘however’ needs to be included with that—there is a shortage of licensed, qualified pilots who are willing to work for some of the pay and benefits offered by some of the airlines and many [regional carriers] that actually need those pilots,” he said.
Today’s pilots are no different than those who entered the industry 40 years ago, “but what we’re seeing [are] societal and generational changes,” Hogeman said. “We’ve got to find opportunities to restore the passion for this industry.”