Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Airline Pilots: Coming Up Short

Regional and foreign carriers are worried as industry projects deepening pilot shortage

If you ask the average high-school student today about working as an airline pilot, you might get more questions than answers. The public's perception of what it means to be an airline pilot has changed, based largely on working conditions for brand-new first officers flying for regional carriers. But most of us can recall the not-too-distant past when a job as an airline pilot was one of the golden rings you'd reach for as a kid. It was a dream job that meant high pay and low hours with all the benefits of free travel, great medical insurance, luxurious retirement and the awe of every passenger in the terminal. The crisp, blue uniform and gold wings announced you were part of an elite group.

The most dramatic change came in 1978 when the Airline Deregulation Act became federal law, removing government-subsidized airfares and allowing free-market competition to drive airline fare prices. The result was lower fares and more people using the airline system. Unions lost some of their bargaining power as smaller profits drove the major airlines to drop point-to-point routes in favor of hub-based routing. Regional airlines started to boom, but they hired less-experienced pilots at salaries below those of the major carriers. Fast-forward to today, and a shiny, new regional first officer starts with a paycheck of around $25,000/year. But a new era for pilots appears to be on the horizon.

Numbers are starting to emerge—especially from foreign airlines—indicating that the much-hyped pilot shortage may be a reality. Regular readers of this magazine know that we've been talking about a pilot shortage for the past three years, with some folks harrumphing and shaking their heads that it could never happen. Fasten your seatbelts, because the run-up has already begun.

This July, Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, spoke at a luncheon in Wichita, Kan. He was addressing the very subject of a pilot shortage. Because of the way the airline hiring system works, regional airlines are a sort of "farm team" for the major carriers.

Regionals use smaller aircraft and fly short hops, and thus employ pilots with the least qualifications. It's standard practice for a newly minted pilot with advanced ratings to start as a first officer at a regional. Because of that, it's at the regional airlines where a shortage will first be felt. There was obvious concern in Cohen's voice.

"The supply of pilots is going to be a major, major issue for us," Cohen said. "The pilot shortage is coming, and it's going to have a real-world impact."
There are reports coming out of China of airliners being parked for extended periods because there are no pilots to fly them. The problem is getting worse.
He went on to describe all the reasons why a shortage is looming, and how regional airlines are worried about everything from declining student-pilot numbers to the new 1,500-hour requirement for first officers. Cohen even urged people to contact their representatives in Congress to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to change the 1,500-hour requirement. He suggested that aviation should become a national priority, and that government funds should be used to facilitate flight training. "An investment must also be made in the human capital," Cohen said.


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