The Coming U.S. Pilot Shortage Is Real

With upward of 20,000 cockpit seats expected to open up at U.S. airlines over the next seven years due to FAA-mandated age-65 retirements, the scene should be set for the pilot pipeline to work as designed: Regional pilots working for low wages finally get their chance to move quickly up to the big leagues of heavy metal and significantly higher salaries—and college and flight school graduates gain access to the right seats of regional jets.

There is a major problem with this scenario, however. Too few bright-eyed students are opting for careers in the cockpit, despite the promise of readily available jobs. The crunch is already hitting regional airlines, which are losing increasing numbers of pilots to the major carriers and are not able to fill new pilot training classes. In some cases, regionals have had to park aircraft for lack of pilots. This should be a concern beyond the aviation world, too. The impact might lead to some smaller U.S. cities losing their air service. The dearth of pilots is a problem in other parts of the world, too, though the causes and potential cures will vary by country and region.

Credit: Boeing

Decades ago, most U.S. airline pilots were plucked from the ranks of retiring military cockpit crews, but a gradual decline in those numbers has shifted the onus to civilian-trained pilots. Of that group, airlines prefer graduates of four-year aviation schools such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University or the University of North Dakota. Enrollments by U.S. students in professional pilot programs at both schools are down significantly from pre-2002 levels, however. And the expense of the training—about $50,000 per year, including flight time—is not the only issue. Filling many seats in schools and flight training outfits are foreign students, particularly from Asia-Pacific countries, where the airline industry is booming. They earn their licenses and move directly to the right seats of jets with several hundred hours of flight time, far below the minimum of 1,000 hr. now required for a new U.S. pilot with a four-year degree from an aviation college.

It is not just the expense of the college degree or the low starting salary at the regionals that underlies the slump in the U.S. Starting pay at regionals, long-held at about $20,000 a year (lately increasing to approximately $30,000 thanks to signing bonuses, retention pay and other incentives), is low but not unheard of—just ask a newly minted teacher or journalist. What is different from many other start-low career paths is the promise of pay increases that ultimately can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Over the course of a career, a pilot’s pay will often exceed that of an engineer.
The apparent lack of interest on the front side of the pipeline could simply be the long lag between low starting salaries and a comfortable lifestyle later. But it is likely more complicated than the peculiar pay path. Some aviation college officials say the students are no longer enamored of the lifestyle of a pilot that can be affected by the heavy travel schedule and the quickness with which the industry can be turned upside down by major blows like 9/11, Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganizations or recessions. Thrown in the mix are resulting furloughs and pension cuts.
Simply berating the regional airline industry to pay more will not work. Its salaries are locked by two main drivers: cost-fixed contracts that the regionals hold with mainline carriers, and pilots’ collective bargaining agreements. Consolidation in the airline industry has meant regionals have less leverage in increasing contract amounts. “The airline has little control to raise pay unilaterally because they won’t get the contract,” explained Roger Cohen, then-president of the Regional Airline Association.
The RAA says it is aggressively trying to stimulate interest in piloting careers at high schools and universities, and working with regional airlines to set up so-called bridge or gateway programs whereby carriers make early connections with potential pilots and give them clear career paths. Mechanisms include hiring college graduates who will build hours as flight instructors on an airline’s payroll.
Those steps are encouraging, but they may not be enough. The FAA should consider allowing more college credit hours at approved schools to offset flight-time requirements. Regional and major airlines and pilot unions might consider structuring a new voluntary career path in which the lower portion of the pay scale is higher but the senior pilots do not reach the heights of today. Or regionals and majors might lock arms and offer scholarships in return for specific service commitments to flying for them both.
Regulators, and perhaps Congress, might need to provide an antitrust exemption to allow the necessary players to work it all out. But it would be worth it. This coming problem is serious, and it could adversely affect the U.S. as a whole because aviation is so critical to economic activity and many citizens’ lifestyles. It’s time to take this seriously, bring some creativity to bear on solutions and get on with implementing them.


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