A severe shortage of pilots in the United States leaves airlines scrambling to find solutions


Airlines pilots walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Anna Money Maker | Getty Images

The United States faces the worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights as travelers return more than two years after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis prompted the industry to search for solutions.

At least one lawmaker is said to be considering legislation that could raise the federally mandated retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 or higher to extend pilots’ time in the skies.

A regional airline has proposed reducing requirements for flying hours before joining a US airline, and airlines are rethinking training programs to lower the barrier to entry. earlier this year, Delta Airlines It joined other major carriers in dropping a four-year certification of pilot recruitment requirements.

Many US airlines, including borderis recruiting some pilots from Australia. American Airlines Sells bus tickets for some short routes.

But some airline executives warn that resolving the shortfall could take years.

“The shortage of pilots for this industry is real, and most airlines simply will not be able to achieve their capacity plans because there are simply not enough pilots, at least not for the next five years or more,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on a quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimated that the regional airlines that United works with currently have about 150 aircraft on the ground due to a shortage of pilots.

The roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic has halted the hiring of pilots as training and licensing slows. Distributed airlines early retirement Packages offered to thousands of pilots and other staff are meant to cut labor bills when there is a gap in travel demand during the depths of the crisis.

“I feel like I’m way off the top,” said a former captain of a major US airline who took an early retirement package in 2020.

Now airlines desperately need it employment And pilot trainingbut the rush can take a long time to avoid interruption of flights.

Major US airlines are trying to hire more than 12,000 pilots combined this year alone, more than double the previous record for annual hiring, according to Kate Darby, a pilot wage consultant and retired United captain.

The shortage is particularly acute for regional airlines feeding the hubs of major airlines from smaller cities. While the hiring and retention bonuses are back at those airlines, the wages there are lower than at the big companies, and they’re recruiting aggressively from those smaller companies.

Phoenix based Mesa Air Groupwhich fly for America and United, lost nearly $43 million last quarter as flight cutbacks escalated.

“We’ve never really understood levels of attrition like this,” said Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa. “If we don’t fly our planes, we lose money. You’ve seen our quarterly numbers.”

It takes an estimated 120 days for Mesa to replace a pilot who has given two weeks’ notice to go to another airline, according to Ornstein.

“We can use 200 pilots at the moment,” he said.

Some airlines such as Frontier and regional airlines Sky West They recruit pilots from Australia on a special visa to help alleviate the shortage, but the numbers are small compared to their overall ranks and employment goals.

Regional airline Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, petitioned last month from the US government to allow pilots to fly to the airline within 750 hours, half of the 1,500 currently required, if they go through the carrier’s training program. There are already exceptions to the 1,500-hour rule, such as US Army-trained pilots and those who attend two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

The proposal received opposition from family members of the 2009 victims Colgan Air 3407 Crash, the last fatal US passenger plane crash. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and authorized the so-called 1,500-hour rule, which is intended to ensure the pilot’s experience.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R. S., is considering introducing legislation in Congress that could raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots to at least 67 from the current age of 65, according to people familiar with Graham’s plans. About a third of eligible U.S. airline pilots are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the nation’s airline pilots will reach retirement age within five years, according to the regional airline association.

Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

stunted growth

The shortage of pilots and other workers forced airlines to do so Rethink its growth plans. JetBlue Airways And Alaska Airlines Among the carriers that have recently reduced their capacity.

Sky WestFor its part, it told the Department of Transportation that it plans to drop the service to 29 small cities that the government supports through basic air service.

Service cuts could isolate smaller US cities, but Darby, a pilot wages advisor, said that could mean opening up to smaller competitors who don’t rely on regional airlines as much as they do on major airline networks.

“If they don’t fly it, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.

One of the biggest obstacles to bringing in new pilots is the cost of education. While salaries for wide-body captains at major airlines can top $350,000 a year, getting the qualifications takes years.

At ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, it costs approximately $92,000 for a seven-month full-time program to obtain initial licenses. It can take pilots 18 months or more to build up enough hours to fly, often by mentoring student pilots or sometimes by hoisting signs near beaches.

“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. “You can’t get someone to come from the street.”

In December, United began teaching first students at its own flight school, United Flight Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with the goal of training 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says it aims for half that number to be women or people of color. The company covers the cost of pilot training up to the point of obtaining a private pilot license, which is estimated to be approximately $17,000 per student.

Other carriers have turned to low-interest loans or other initiatives to ease the financial burden on students.

“There is no quick fix,” Darby said.

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