Transport Airports

The airline pilot shortage in the U.S. will effect smaller markets most of all

Feb 04, 2013 7:02 am

Skift Take

A wave of retirements is just one more issue that will force airlines and smaller airports to rethink the base assumptions of how they do business together.

— Jason Clampet

Free Report: The Changing Business of Extended-Stay Hotels

Willamor Media  / Flickr

An airborne American Eagle Embraer ERJ-135LR. Willamor Media / Flickr


Airlines anticipate a pilot shortage in coming years that could cut into service of small-market airports like Waterloo.

But it could boost business at flight schools, according to at least one aviation expert.

Pilots in general aren’t young workers, according to Denny Kelly, a former pilot and now an aviation consultant with Kelly-James and Associates in Dallas. He says the average age of a commercial airline pilot is about 48.

“You’ve got to remember 5 to 10 percent of these pilots will retire every year,” he said.

He pointed out American Airlines, whose regional carrier, American Eagle, serves Waterloo with two flights per day in and out of Waterloo Regional Airport, has been in bankruptcy reorganization and has lost pilots in recent years. If trends continue, he could envision American cutting back service to Waterloo if it needs to shift regional pilots to longer routes.

“If Eagle or American starts having a pilot shortage they’re going to have to cancel flights, and the first ones they’re going to cancel are markets like Waterloo,” Kelly said. “If there’s only two flights, that’s a pretty small market, and that would be a place they’d look to cut. It’s going to affect a lot of people a lot of ways.”

But Brad Hagen, director of Waterloo Regional Airport, said there are a couple of reasons to doubt Kelly’s dire outlook.

“First, we haven’t heard anything from American regarding pilot shortages and any possible impact in the future,” Hagen said.

Secondly, Hagen said, Waterloo is now part of the federal Essential Air Service program, which likely would insulate it from cutbacks.

“Since we’re an EAS market, I don’t think there’s going to be any impact on Waterloo any time in the future,” Hagen said. “If that comes about, small markets might be affected but not EAS markets.”

Hagen said American Airlines likely would have informed him of any possible local impact.

“Through the years, there’s been ebbs and flows of pilot shortages. How serious this is, I don’t know, but we haven’t been told by American there’s going to be an impact, and I don’t see that in the near and mid-term,” he said.

A shortage of pilots could hit Waterloo, said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airlines Association, based in Washington, D.C.

“I absolutely think that communities, even much larger than Waterloo, will be in jeopardy of losing their services, and that is not only by nature of the airline business but by the potential of pilot shortage that could hit almost at any time,” Cohen said. “The concern is well-founded.”

Residents who want to protect commercial air service should contact their lawmakers in Washington, Cohen said.

Rules that require an 1,500 hours of flight time for new pilots need to be reviewed, Cohen said.

“That … is the single biggest barrier to getting new pilots into the pipeline,” he said.

Flight schools like Livingston Aviation in Waterloo and Walter Aviation Inc. in Independence fill a vital role in addressing the problem — as far as they can.

But that takes time.

People pursuing aviation careers may come out of training with 300 to 500 hours flight time. That leaves them 1,000 hours short of qualifying to be an airline pilot.

“Young pilots who would consider pursuing these careers aren’t even getting interviewed,” Cohen said.

Boost possible

On the other hand, Kelly said, the potential shortage could be a boon to flight schools.

Experts say some airlines could be strapped for pilots by the end of the year as current pilots reach mandatory retirement age of 65 and rules from the Federal Aviation Administration requiring extra training take hold.

Kelly cited Boeing Aircraft Co. estimates that the world’s airlines will have to hire 460,000 pilots in the next 20 years. Flight schools are not turning out enough candidates, and the people they do turn out don’t have enough experience.

The best way to build that experience is by becoming a flight instructor, Kelly said.

“They go out and get 1,000 hours instructing,” he said. “But they instruct in a two seat single-engine plane that goes 90 mph.”

Livingston Aviation, located next to Waterloo Regional Airport, has seen a slight increase in inquiries from prospective students for its flight training program in the last year, said Tim Newton, general manager.

“There certainly is talk of a shortage and a lot of older pilots retiring, and that’s something we hope to tap into at some point,” Newton said.

Livingston’s flight school has an enrollment of about eight students, Newton estimated. Some learn to fly helicopters, some private planes, some commercial. Livingston does “a fair amount” of flight instructor training, Newton said.

“We have an accelerated program,” he said. “I’ve noticed our flight instructor one is quite popular. Perhaps there’s more people getting into the professional pilot field than in the past.”

Walter Aviation, which operates at Independence Airport, has about a dozen students, said owner Jonathan Walter.

“We’ll over double that in the summer,” he said.

It generally takes three to six months to get a pilot’s license and at least two years to become a flight instructor, Walter said.

Commercial airlines aren’t the only sector short of pilots, but there’s some hope of a reversal.

“Just in the last year we’ve had a tremendous increase in people under 30 enrolling in our flight school,” he said. “Over half of our students now are under 26.”

Before, nine of every 10 enrollees were over 30 years old, Walter said.

The obstacles to becoming a commercial pilot are numerous.

“The feedback I’m getting is that a few want to go airline. The rest want to make a career out of aviation, but in medical flights, corporate, charter or crop dusting, you name it,” Walter said.

Money shortage

Flight schools could take on a more important role, Kelly said. He thinks the airlines should join with flight schools to train aspiring pilots in bigger airplanes. But the major airlines are chronically strapped for cash.

The airlines once got a lot of pilots from the military, but those numbers have dwindled as airlines have disappeared and rules have changed. The military used to require a five-year obligation, Kelly said. Today, military pilots sign on for 11 years.

“You got out and were 25-28 years old, and the airlines gobbled you up,” he said. “That isn’t the case now. Plus, there’s not that many guys, and once these guys get 11 years in, why not go up nine more and get a retirement?”

Commercial captains can make $200,000 a year, and co-pilots make good money, too, Kelly said. But there are yearly physicals, regular flight checks in a simulator and routes often are awarded according to seniority, Kelly said.

“If you’re furloughed and come back, you have to start at the bottom,” he said.

American Airlines has about 8,000 pilots — down from a peak of 11,000. The airline says it will need 800 more to accommodate new FAA rules that mandate longer rest periods — from eight to 10 hours — if the new FAA regulation takes effect, Kelly said.

Whether it does up in the air now. The rules currently don’t apply to cargo pilots, and they are threatening to sue, saying they should, Kelly said.

The biggest problem, though, is the wave of retirements.

American’s bankruptcy also could play a role in the airline’s ability to keep pilots, Kelly said.

Foreign carriers are offering jobs to experienced pilots that pay 20 to 30 percent more than some American jobs, Kelly said.

“If I’m 40 and flying for American airlines and flying co-pilot on a 737-800, and Qatar Airways will pay twice what you’re making to be a captain, what are you going to do?” he asked.

Livingston’s Newton said there is another, perhaps bigger, potential shortage in the aviation field — mechanics.

“It’s hard to get the training,” Newton said. “Numerous community colleges have closed their programs in the last five to 10 years, including three or four in Iowa. We’ve actually had a couple of apprentices through our shop.”

(c)2013 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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