As reported in USA Today by Bart Jansen
As airlines plan to hire hundreds of new pilots, industry officials warn that a shortage looms because of retirements, greater training requirements and longer rest periods between shifts.
American Airlines, which is reorganizing in bankruptcy court while proposing to merge with US Airways to become the world’s largest airline, announced plans this week to hire 1,500 pilots over five years.
Capt. John Hale, American’s vice president for flight, said the company is excited to build its team through hiring and recruitment, with greater opportunities expected after the proposed merger.
A month ago, United Airlines announced it would recall nearly 600 pilots, the last to return from furloughs in 2008, to fill gaps from retirements and rest rules.
But a pilot shortage is looming because of increased training of pilots, extended rest periods for pilots and a mandatory retirement age of 65, which was extended from 60 in 2007. The lure of foreign airlines in China or elsewhere could also reduce the domestic supply of pilots.
Kent Lovelace, chairman of the aviation department at the University of North Dakota, studied pilot retirements, surveys of potential pilots and projected a shortfall of 35,000 pilots in the next 20 years.
“I know regional airlines are having challenges right now,” Lovelace said.
That study didn’t factor in a Federal Aviation Administration rule that took effect Aug. 1, requiring 1,500 hours of flight time for all co-pilots, to match the minimum requirement for captains. The rule grew out of the fatal Colgan Air crash in 2009 that killed 50 people and was partially blamed on pilot training.
There are exceptions for military pilots and graduates of four-year colleges, but airlines are reluctant to hire pilots who aren’t close to the requirement.
Also, in December 2011, the FAA adopted an anti-fatigue rule that lengthened the rest period between shifts for commercial pilots flying passengers. Pilots are now supposed to get 10 hours off, including eight hours for uninterrupted rest, between shifts whose length varies depending on the time of day.
Without criticizing the extra training, regional airlines worry that the cost and difficulty of obtaining the training could discourage people from becoming pilots. Regional airlines, where pilots build their experience, are key because they represent half of all flights as they feed larger hubs.
“It remains a pressing concern. It should be a pressing concern not just for airlines, but for any community that isn’t in the top 30,” said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. “If they’re not concerned about losing air service, they ought to be.”
Clair Tosino, who flies nearly every week as a consultant from her home outside Columbus, was heading home from Boston through Chicago on Aug. 23. But she said her American Eagle connection at O’Hare was canceled for what was announced as a lack of an “available” co-pilot.
As an executive-platinum member, she was rebooked on another flight an hour later.
“Nonetheless, I got home late with more or less a wasted evening at the airport,” Tosino said.
A spokesman for American Eagle said the problem was not caused by the new training rule and said the airline finished its new qualification program early.
“American Eagle hasn’t had any issues related to the 1,500-hour rule,” Matt Miller said.
The training requirement remains a concern generally for regional airlines. Cohen noted that reaching 1,500 hours would require flying three hours per day, five days a week — a significant and costly commitment for a student.
“That’s an enormous amount of time,” Cohen said. “That’s pretty daunting.”
A first officer for a regional carrier typically makes $18,000 to $20,000 a year. But flight school loans can reach $100,000.
“Students want a defined path,” said Lovelace, the professor.
Academic programs and airlines are working to attract young pilots and expedite training. For example, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Cape Air, ExpressJet and JetBlue have a University Gateway Program to provide training and mentorship for students to become pilots.
Participants have to maintain a B average and work as a flight instructor at the university. As they accumulate hours, participants can join Cape Air and eventually perhaps, JetBlue.
Since launching in 2007, the program now has 150 pilots; 20 have reached Cape Air, and eight have reached JetBlue.
“It’s a definite path with clearly obtainable goals,” said Capt. Krista Poppe, the program’s manager at Cape Air. “They know how to get to JetBlue.”
To apply for pilot positions at American Airlines, please log into your account at FlightLevelJobs.com.