Pilot shortage looms for airlines
Some U.S. airlines may see a pilot crunch as soon as this year, as thousands of pilots start to retire and new rules requiring extra training and more rest start to kick in, some aviation analysts say.
As the economy slowly improves, potentially increasing the desire by Americans to travel, a wave of pilots is reaching the federally mandated retirement age of 65. They'll be walking out the door just as it gets harder for a new crop of pilots to walk in because of new rules set to begin in August that require co-pilots to have as many flight hours as captains before they can work in a cockpit.
"I think this is going to be much larger and much longer than any we've had before," Kit Darby, an aviation consultant who runs a career information service for pilots, says of a looming shortage. "And the reason it's going to be so much worse this time is we have a combination of things happening at the same time."
If a shortage occurs, some analysts say, large airlines would likely scoop up available candidates. That would leave regional carriers, which operate half of the nation's scheduled flights and often provide the only air service to smaller cities, scrambling.
"The major carriers probably won't see the shortage, if one comes into play, because that's where the better-paying jobs are," says Kent Lovelace, chairman of the aviation program at the University of North Dakota. "The regional airline industry will probably be most affected."
Airlines for America, the trade group for most major U.S. carriers, doesn't foresee a problem looming.
"Long-term projections about pilot hiring are inherently subjective, as they are based on assumptions about airline growth that have often proved to be faulty," says group spokeswoman Victoria Day. "We expect the major commercial airlines will be appropriately staffed and are not expecting any shortage within the next few years."
A global challenge
Roughly 90,000 commercial pilots work now for U.S. carriers, Darby says. He estimates that 8,000 a year will need to be hired to replace those who retire, to accommodate new rules around rest and to keep up with the industry's expected growth.
Finding qualified pilots is a global challenge. A 2012 report from airplane maker Boeing estimated a need for 460,000 new commercial pilots over the next two decades. The report found "a pilot shortage has already arisen in many regions of the world," particularly in Asia, where the gap was causing delays and other flight interruptions.
The Asia-Pacific region will need 185,600 new pilots, the most of any region, the report calculated. North America will need 69,000.
In the U.S., the retirement age for pilots was raised from 60 to 65 in 2007. The first large-scale departures are starting, with the numbers expected to escalate in the next few years.
Delta Air Lines anticipates having to eventually make hundreds of new hires. "We're not hiring pilots now, but we do expect, based on retirements, that we'll need 3,500 over the next decade, and we continue to monitor staffing levels," says Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton.
Some analysts say airlines will have a challenge finding new, qualified pilots once the FAA rule takes effect requiring commercial co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of flying experience — the same as captains.
The change was prompted by a demand for new safety measures after the crash of a Colgan Air jet that killed 50 people near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009. Previously, co-pilots needed only 250 hours.
"It has moved the goal post," says Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. "You've just tripled the number of hours they'll need to be able to even interview for a job with an airline, regardless of the size."
New rules that require more rest will boost the need for more pilots, some analysts say. For instance, the minimum rest period before a pilot's flight duty would increase from eight hours to 10, including the ability to get eight hours of sleep in a row.
Cohen says many of the factors that can lead to a shortage are in place, though it's unclear when it will occur. And he warns it would be a problem for the entire industry, not just regional carriers. But if airlines have difficulty filling cockpits, he says, it's likely smaller cities that will see the sharpest dips in service. If there aren't enough pilots available, he says, "You have to pick and choose what routes you're going to fly."
Other forces also are at work: Military pilots are staying longer in the service. Young people are less interested in a field that has seen concessions in pay and benefits. And foreign airlines increasingly are wooing pilots to meet growing travel demand overseas.
"Foreign flying is going to continue to be a potential threat to the U.S. pilot supply," the University of North Dakota's Lovelace says.