Pilot Shortage Looms

The experts say airlines will soon face a shortage of qualified pilots. This is not exactly new – I wrote about this topic more than five years ago, but an upcoming wave of pilot retirements has added urgency to the situation.

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Reasons for Pilot Shortages

There are several reasons for a pilot shortage ranging from the economy to fewer candidates from the military and new and onerous job requirements. Then there are the coming retirements.

  • Retirements

In 2007, the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65 and many took advantage of the chance to lengthen their careers. The trouble now, according to news reports is that a “dramatic” number of pilots have now aged-out and the coming wave of retirements is worrying airline executives and others. As American Airlines pilot and union spokesman Dennis Tajer says, “It could be a real brain-drain in the cockpit.”

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  • Economic Pressures

Beginning with 9/11 which was followed by a decade that saw rising oil prices and recession, airlines have operated under the 3 C’s business model: contraction, consolidation and capacity cuts, which meant a lot of layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. Plus, smaller pay checks have stolen some of the glamour out of the once highly coveted job of flying a plane; according to some estimates, pilot salaries top-off at a little more than about half of what they used to make just a few years ago. All this fuels fears that the industry cannot attract enough young people.

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  • New Flight Hour Requirements

Beginning this year, pilot applicants will have to have 1,500 flight hours under their belts, which is six times as much as the previous flight hours requirement. The expense and time could deter a lot of otherwise good candidates.

Silver Lining?

The pilots I know are still passionate about what they do – as one anonymous first officer with a large U.S. airline told me recently, “I still love flying, and still feel I’m lucky to have this job.” I can’t help but think there are youngsters out there who will one day echo those sentiments.

More from Rick Seaney:

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Published: November 29, 2012