Evidence for US pilot shortage 'mixed': GAO report

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US-based regional airlines say they are having trouble finding enough pilots, but there is "mixed" evidence about whether such a shortage exists, says a report from the US Government Accountability Office.

The office cites two studies from Audries Aircraft Analysis and Mitre Corporation that showed that a prolonged pilot shortage was "unlikely" to occur. However, the latter study showed that a temporary pilot shortage could happen but be resolved within a few years.

Data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) show that the unemployment rate for pilots between 2000 and 2012 averaged at 2.7%, or lower than that of the general economy. While this could be evidence of a shortage, falling wages and employment contracted during this time would typically contradict evidence of one, the government body says. US pilots' median wages during this time fell 9.5% during this period and employment decreased 12%, the BLS data showed.

While data on whether a shortage exists is unclear, regional airlines do appear to be having issues attracting pilots. Eleven of 12 regional airlines interviewed reported being unable to reach hiring targets for new first officers, and a majority said that the pool of candidates applying for the jobs was declining. For example, one of the airlines that would normally receive 1,000 applicants after announcing openings said it only received about 100.

These airlines say they are seeing dwindling numbers of pilots applying for jobs after new pilot training requirements implemented in August require first officers to have a minimum of 1,500 pilot hours, and an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.

Regional airlines told the study they were previously able to hire pilots with between 500 and 700 flight hours that could work up to the ATP requirements on the job, however the study notes that pilots are not able to use that experience to qualify for the certificate under the new rules.

Now, many of the entry-level pilots need to add between 500 and 750 hours to reach that level under the new regulations, says the body. That could mean another year or two of flying for non-commercial operators, joining the military, working for a foreign airline or paying for flight time in a simulator.

Republic Airlines, for example, said on 27 February that the pilot shortage meant that it would not extend leases for 41 Embraer ERJ145s.

Eight US-based mainline airlines reported that they would need to hire 20,800 pilots between 2014 and 2023, it says. However, studies show differing projections for pilots needed in the next decade.

Several industry studies and government data show that airlines will need between 1,900 and 4,500 new pilots over the next decade, says the body. For example, a study led by the University of North Dakota showed that the industry would need to hire about 45,000 pilots in the next decade and 95,000 new pilots in the next 20 years. An FAA study showed that airlines would need an average of 3,400 pilots with ATP certificates over the next decade.

Avoiding a shortage could require giving incentives to pilots to undergo additional education and to bring in pilots working out of the USA if needed, which could require airlines to raise wages or provide better benefits packages. New pilot flight and duty time regulations may require one-off staffing adjustments at airlines, it also notes.

Mainline carriers that usually hire more experienced pilots did not communicate the same types of difficulties finding pilots, the findings of the study show.