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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

U.S. Airlines Face Pilot Shortage

U.S. airlines are facing a potential pilot shortage, as higher experience requirements go into effect, and a wave of pilots retire. (Gerd Rebenich/AP)

Airlines are facing yet another road bump. This time it’s not fuel prices or failing equipment, but a looming pilot shortage.

The airline industry expects that a crippling shortage of qualified commercial airline pilots could hit the U.S. by next spring.

Several factors have contributed to the problem. The last pilot hiring boom took place in the 1980s, and now those pilots are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. Meantime, the starting salaries for beginning pilots – sometimes as low as $20,000 a year – are too low to attract new recruits.

“There seems to be a consensus that the system as it currently stands is not really going to withstand the shortage.”

“There are incredible cost cutting pressures,” Andy Pasztor, who has been covering the story for The Wall Street Journal, told Here & Now. “There’s been an equilibrium over the years – enough pilots to fill those seats and work for those salaries. But I think everyone sees a major problem coming in the next several years.”

On top of the low starting salaries and impending wave of retirements, the Federal Aviation Administration has implemented a new regulation, set to begin in August, requiring all commercial pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time before being hired. That’s a significant jump from the current number of hours needed to be hired.

In the past, commercial pilots have been hired with as few as 250 or 300 hours flight time, according to Pasztor. With the new rule in place, the pool of qualified pilots will shrink dramatically, and some who are already flying may find themselves unqualified.

“The reason that it is a serious issue – and it will turn into an even more serious issue – is that you’re starting to have industry folks and government officials starting to come up with new, innovative ways to train pilots,” Pasztor said. “There seems to be a consensus that the system as it currently stands is not really going to withstand the shortage.”

Smaller airlines says they may be forced to cancel flights or suspend service to smaller cities, as a result of the pilot shortage. But from the perspective of the average passenger flying on major airlines, Pasztor said they may not feel the impact of the shortage for several years.


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  • Guest

    You’re minimum hours are misquoted. Its a minimum of 1,500, not 15,000. As a pilot I still find 1,500 hours an immense hurdle to getting into the industry, but 15,000 would be insurmountable.

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Thank you! It’s corrected now.

  • Guest

    There is NO career with a worse return on investment than that of a commercial pilot.  Few ever make decent money.  Many hang it up having spent more on flight training than they ever earn.  

    These so called “pilot shortage” articles are a scam with the information sourced from vendors of pilot training trying to drum up business for a dead career path that will eventually be outsourced and replaced by automation.  

    The glory days of the past are long gone!

  • Head Phone

    I love to fly, and would love to be a commercial pilot, however the cost of training is prohibitive for the return you get.

    I have my private license which I primarily trained for in Vancouver, BC.  The cost of a single engined airplane here is currently ~$150/hr + $50/hr for your instructor.  Before you can even think about offsetting that cost by becoming an instructor yourself you are looking at 200+ hr of flight time…that’s $30,000+ in airplane expenses only, not including the typically 60+ hrs of instruction.  Then you need to move on to multi-engined aircraft, which typically cost $340+/hr…To get an idea of the total cost, take a look at the British Airways Future Pilot Programme.  To enter into the program they require a security deposit GBP 87,000 (~$138,000), which they will repay over 5 years *if you are successful*.  While this is a very large amount of money, at least BA is trying…  No US airline has a training plan of this type.

    Basically, you are looking at the cost and time being equivalent to going to medical school, with the pay of a bus driver and employment risk like a movie rental store.  I, for one, have become an engineer, even though I would rather be flying…

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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