Skift Take

You say tomatoe and I say tomahto. Whether ALPA wants to admit there is a pilot shortage or merely cast it as a question of attractive pay scales, the end result is that there aren't enough qualified pilots to fill job openings at U.S. regional and major airlines.

The largest pilots union in the U.S. wants to refute the supposed myth that there is an airline pilot shortage, and in the process of doing so the Air Line Pilots Association conceded that there is a pilot shortage.

In a press release, ALPA made its case for the absence of a pilot shortage by pointing out:

  • 1,154 of its member pilots are currently furloughed from jobs with their former airline employers.
  • Nearly all of the 850 experienced pilots who got their walking papers when Comair Airlines ceased operating in 2012 are seeking employment.
  • 800 pilots became jobless when ASTAR, Evergreen and Ryan airlines recently shut down.

So that means some 2,800 formerly employed U.S. pilots are seeking to pick up a paycheck somewhere.

ALPA’s real point is that many U.S. pilots just aren’t interested in available job openings because the pay is too low, that European and Gulf airlines pay much more than their U.S. counterparts, and the U.S. aviation industry is too unstable.

“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay, and benefits,” says Capt. Lee Moak, president of ALPA. “But thousands of highly qualified and experienced U.S. airline pilots are either furloughed or working overseas and eager to return to U.S airline cockpits —under the right conditions.”

In other words, regardless of the reasons behind it and despite ALPA’s myth-shattering exercise, the union admits that airlines are having trouble filling pilot openings.

ALPA notes that the starting copilot salary at 14 regional airlines in the U.S. is $21,285 per year, plus benefits, and when you consider that the workweek often runs to 85 hours, it can be argued that the pay is minimum wage-like.

Regional airline copilots put up with the fast food-level pay because they hope to move up through the ranks and end up becoming a pilot at a major airline, where pay grades are attractive.

While United and Delta hire copilots starting at $61,000 per year plus benefits, Emirates’ starting salary is $82,000 annually “plus a housing allowance and other extraordinary benefits,” ALPA says.

The starting co-pilot pay at Cathay Pacific of $72,000 annually plus a housing allowance and other benefits also trumps that of its U.S. peers.

Thus, many U.S. co-pilots and pilots looking for work turn their attention abroad for better compensation.

The pilot squeeze in the U.S. was also exacerbated last year when the FAA increased the minimum training hours required to get a pilot’s certificate, and in late 2013 many airlines went out looking for additional pilots because more stringent rest rules went into effect.

ALPA claims that these latest changes have had “minimal effect on pilot staffing,” but several airlines have reported they were forced to bring on additional pilots to comply with the new rules.

Regardless of the way ALPA parses whether there is an actual pilot shortage or not, several airlines, including American, JetBlue and Southwest, pointed to the problem in there 2013 annual reports.

Excerpts follow:

American Airlines

A higher than normal number of pilot retirements and a potential shortage of pilots could adversely affect us.

From time to time in the past, we have experienced higher than normal rates of pilot retirements, and we currently have a higher than normal number of pilots eligible for retirement. In the past, we had to reduce capacity and take other steps in an effort to reduce the impact of pilot retirements.

If pilot retirements were to exceed normal levels in the future, it may adversely affect us. More generally, large numbers of pilots in the industry are approaching retirement age, and the FAA recently issued regulations that increase the flight experience required for pilots working for carriers certificated under Part 121 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. These and other factors could contribute to a shortage of qualified pilots, which could adversely affect us.


Our pilot pay structure, for example, is based on an industry derived average and to the extent our competitors continue consolidating and/or begin raising their pilot salaries in the face of a possible pilot shortage, we may have to address increased salary cost pressure to retain our pilots in an environment where our capacity is also forecast to continue to grow. As our work force ages, we expect our medical and related benefits to increase as well, despite an increased corporate focus on crewmember wellness.

Our pilots are among the most productive in the U.S. passenger airline industry, ranking second in average annual block hours per pilot. We also effectively use part-time Crewmembers and automate tasks through the use of technology to gain efficiencies. We are cognizant of the competition for productive labor in key industry positions. Additionally, new government rules requiring higher qualifications are predicted to result in potential labor shortages in the upcoming years.


In December 2011, the FAA issued a rule to amend the FAA’s flight, duty, and rest regulations. Among other things, the new rule, which went into effect in January 2014, requires a ten hour minimum rest period prior to a pilot’s flight duty period; mandates that a pilot must have an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep within the rest period; and imposes new pilot “flight time” and “duty time” limitations based upon report times, the number of scheduled flight segments, and other operational factors. The new rule may reduce the Company’s staffing flexibility, which could impact the Company’s operational performance, costs, and Customer Experience.


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Tags: labor, pilots

Photo credit: The pilots union, Air Line Pilots Association, says a stable industry and better pay would solve any pilot shortage. Pictured, US Airways 777 pilot Rob Ingram, based in Dallas, holds a sign as pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other union members working for American Airlines and US Airways demonstrate urging the U.S. Justice Department to allow the two companies to merge at a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington September 18, 2013. Jim Bourg / Reuters

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