ANALYSIS: The truth about the US pilots shortage

This story is sourced from Flight International
Subscribe today »

The US General Accounting Office says it does not know if there is an airline pilot shortage in the country. The Air Line Pilots Association says there is no shortage. The US Federal Aviation Administration says it is not the cause of the problem.

The Regional Airline Association says: come to Cleveland, Ohio or Tupelo, Mississippi or Devils Lake, North Dakota and we will show you there definitely is a shortage and it could become everyone’s problem.

Republic Airways, for example, has grounded 27 Embraer EMB-140 aircraft it flew on behalf of American Airlines and United Airlines, telling its investors the decision was based on “the significant reduction in qualified pilots who meet the congressionally mandated 1,500h pilot experience rule and the company’s rigorous qualification standards”. Republic chairman and chief executive Bryan Bedford recently testified to the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation: “Had we been able to keep those aircraft flying, we would need nearly 800 more employees.”

Great Lakes Airlines is taking the drastic step of converting its 19-seat Beech 1900s into nine-seaters, enabling them to fly with a single pilot as a Part 135 carrier and thus cutting its pilot requirement in half. The Cheyenne, Wyoming-based carrier had trimmed service to 17 cities, some of which is being restored with the modified turboprops, but plans to park 11 of its 28 aircraft.

Florida-based Silver Airways ended scheduled service to five cities in New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia in February and another five in Alabama and Mississippi in April. President and chief executive Dave Pflieger blames “increased requirements related to new hire pilot certification”, which has had “the unintended effect of creating a nationwide shortage of regional airline pilots”.

United Airlines spokesman Rahsaan Johnson also cites regional-carrier pilot shortages when the carrier dropped Cleveland Hopkins International airport as a hub, eliminated non-stop service to over 40 cities, reduced peak-time departures from 199 to 72, and left the city of Cleveland with a potentially vacant concourse initiated at the behest of Continental Airlines, which United merged with in 2010.

asset image

The FAA's 1,500h experience rule has been named as a root cause of a possible growing shortfall of certificated flightcrew

Rex Features

The effect on travellers is typically two-fold: higher ticket prices and longer times to get to their destination, either via flight connections through other cities or car, bus or train rides to a major airport.

“It is not just regional airlines and the smallest markets they serve that face a pilot shortage crisis,” Bedford told the Congressional committee. “The pilot shortage is a threat to air carriers large and small and to our nation’s economy overall.” He noted that regional airlines provide the exclusive source of scheduled air service at 70% of US airports and the majority of air service at 86% of the country’s airports, adding: “Some may be surprised to learn that many larger hubs are also served mostly by regional airlines. For example, 66% of Chicago O’Hare’s flights are operated by regional airlines.”

In other words, there is likely to be a domino effect on air service. If regional airlines cannot hire pilots to fly their aircraft, that reduces the feeder traffic to their major air carrier partner hubs. A GAO report issued in April found that small airports have lost 20.5% of flights since 2007, medium-sized airports have lost 23.9%, and large hubs are down by 9.1%. And larger-capacity aircraft are not the reason: these lost flights represent about 80,000 fewer total seats.

Consultants Matt Barton and Dan Akins at Flightpath Economics warn in a white paper entitled Grounded: The Devastating Impact of the Pilot Supply Crisis that 239 airports across the country are at risk of losing air service. “The stability of the airline industry, and the large economic benefits that it generates, are currently threatened by a growing shortage of available, qualified, and interested pilots.” They estimated over the next 10 years a potential shortfall of up to 10,000 pilots resulting in lost revenue to the aviation industry of as much as $26 billion, eliminating as much as $50-130 billion in total annual economic activity, a scale they compared with “the economic impact of 9/11”.

RAA president Roger Cohen says there is a demand for air service – “there’s just not the pilots that can fill it”. He points out that the FAA 1,500h rule, part of the agency’s August 2013 implementation of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-216), which mandated that all first officers carry an Air Transport Pilot certificate, caused a “severed pipeline”, with “a huge demand as pilots leave the workforce but a shrinking number of people come in”.

Cohen tells Flightglobal in an exclusive interview that there has been talk of a pilot shortage half a dozen times over the 40 years he has been in the aviation industry. “To a lot of people, it almost became like the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot; people had heard about it but no-one had really seen it.”

A GAO report issued in February concluded that indicators of a pilot shortage are mixed; it could not definitively say whether there was a shortage or not. Senior Policy Analyst Vashun Cole admits the study “ran into a number of data limitations trying to do the econometric model”. At the recent RAA Convention in St. Louis, the GAO report was blasted for apparently failing to factor the impact of 9/11 on pilot salaries and other labour market indicators.

Cohen is emphatic that there is a pilot shortage. “This time it is different. It is here. It is very real. And it has happened faster and more significantly than anyone had ever expected.”

All of the previous “sightings” of a pilot shortage at the commercial level, he explains, “were mitigated by what could be termed exogenous events”, in other words produced by something outside the system, for example: recession, fuel prices, 9/11, or SARS.

Cohen says a regional airline pilot shortage was just starting to manifest in 2007. “A number of carriers had actually begun to cut service, but then the industry was overtaken in 2008 by the global recession.” In effect, the recession, together with the FAA raising the mandatory pilot retirement age to 65, postponed the pilot shortage.

“Now those people who are 65 are starting to leave the profession, there is a little bit of growth in the commercial sector, and yet we have the confluence of long-term demographics – people getting out of the profession, the pay is not what it needs to be, the industry has lost its glamour, kids aren’t interested in science and technical kinds of activities – and, coming out of the recession, there’s a global need for airline pilots. But here’s the capper: a whole set of new regulations layered onto all of this.”

The FAA 1,500h rule “has moved the goalposts and cut off the pipeline for people who were currently training to start their career”, says Cohen.
Bedford laments: “Just as the industry was beginning to hire new, much-needed pilots, the FAA placed an additional obstacle between future aviators and their professional airline career.” He notes that aspiring pilots who have graduated from well-regarded training programs “must now spend an additional 12-18 months building extra flight hours in predominantly unstructured environments before airlines are permitted to hire and place them into their own structured training programs.”

This gives new meaning to the phrase “gap year” after graduation, including more cost, which discourages many candidates from pursuing pilot careers altogether. A study last year by half a dozen universities with aviation training programs revealed that more than 40% of student pilots may drop out of the pipeline: 9% are no longer considering an airline pilot career because of the new requirements, and one-third are “reconsidering” their career choice.

There is concern, too, that lack of continuity and structure during the “hours-building” gap of a year or two between formal training and reaching the magical 1,500h hour level may cause new pilots to lose their sharp edge. “Unfortunately, these aviators often find themselves needing to put the start of their airline career on hold while they literally fly in circles accumulating hours in aircraft and operating conditions that are in no way similar to those they would gain as a first officer flying under the authority of an experienced airline captain,” said Pedro Fábregas, president and chief executive of Envoy Air, an American Airlines subsidiary.

ALPA, a union representing about 50,000 commercial pilots in the US and Canada, claims there is no shortage of capable candidates, only “a shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry”, according to president Lee Moak.

Stephen Farrow, president and chief executive of Piedmont Airlines, disputes this. He says the regional carrier sought 50 new pilots in the first quarter but could only hire 28. “This is not due to a lack of motivation or compensation. Piedmont pays one of the highest first-year salaries ($30,000) in the regional industry and offers a $5,000 signing bonus for new hires. This is due simply to an acute shortage of qualified, appropriate pilots on the market, and the unprecedented demand for their services.”

Like many regionals, Silver Airways is offering a signing bonus to entice qualified first officers. Silver recently doubled the ante to $12,000, which it claims is the highest in the regional airline industry.

The major US air carriers have all exhausted their pools of previously furloughed pilots. Delta Air Lines recently called back all of its pilots, United recalled the remainder of its laid-off pilots last autumn, and American Airlines used up its available furlough roster a year ago. Victoria Day, spokesperson for the trade group Airlines for America (A4A), says: “We expect the major commercial airlines will remain appropriately staffed and are not expecting any shortage. In fact, commercial airlines continue to attract quality candidates for our openings – including pilots – because we offer well-paying jobs with good benefits.”
As the major carriers turn to the next most-qualified group of candidates – pilots flying for regionals, there simply are not enough of them to go around. Cohen says most estimates show a need in the US for about 18,000 new pilots by the end of the decade. “Right now, that’s more pilots than all the regionals have combined.”

Challenged at the RAA convention, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta defended the clearly unpopular ATP certificate and 1,500h requirement. “Congress’s intent was clear. They wanted to increase the qualification and experience requirements for pilots.” He claimed, “We broadened the flexibility as much as we could in an effort to address industry concerns.”

But Huerta also left the door slightly ajar, saying: “We’re open to discussing ideas on strengthening the pilot pipeline.”

The FAA’s AFS-280 department, the Air Carrier Training Systems and Voluntary Safety Programs Branch, has established an Aviation Rulemaking Committee to explore “alternative pathways” to enable more young pilots to attain their ATP.

The ARC is chaired by AFS-280 manager Rob Burke and Don Dillman, managing director of Flight Operations for A4A. The 15-member group, whose meetings are not open to the public, also includes representatives from airlines, academia, and training vendors such as FlightSafety International and CAE.
Currently the FAA regulations permit exceptions to the 1,500h threshold only for authorised two-year college programmes (1,250h), four-year college programmes (1,000h), and military (750h). The RAA and others would like to see credit for other “structured” or “proficiency-based” training, such as airline-sponsored programs through flight training academies. They would also like to reconsider substituting some flight hours with simulator-based time, as many as half of the 1,500, a concept originally proposed to the FAA but which is capped at 100h under the current rules.

The ARC is expected to make recommendations within a year.
Might the FAA also adopt an ICAO Multi-crew Pilot License (MPL) programme, as have about 50 national aviation authorities around the world? “We don’t like to use that word [MPL],” says Cohen, a sentiment echoed by many who see the FAA as overly resistant to the MPL concept, which requires only 250h of flight time for new pilots – the same number of hours FAA regulations had considered acceptable for decades until the US Congress dictated otherwise.

Proponents of MPL (including a consensus at last December’s ICAO MPL symposium) argue that the highly structured, competency-based programs, which have produced about 1,000 new pilots to date worldwide, “showed an equivalent level of performance out of the MPL graduates” compared with a traditional commercial pilot licence approach, according to Mitch Fox, chief, ICAO flight operations section.