US airlines think they have a problem. Assuming air travel demand remains steady, the number of fare-paying passengers could soon vastly outnumber the supply of pilots required to carry them.
In the airline chief financial officer’s suite, there is a simple economic solution: increase fares to reduce demand and the pilot shortage disappears.
But that strictly economic answer carries industrial and societal costs. Manufacturers would find less demand for new aircraft and communities, especially in lesser-populated areas, would lose vital connectivity.
So the airline industry’s hired advocates are proposing a range of solutions. Some moves are intuitively logical: to attract more candidates to work as pilots, some airlines are hiking salaries at the bottom of the pay scales and offering new incentives, such as signing bonuses. Other moves are more controversial, such as calling on Congress to repeal three-year-old legislation that raised the bar for pilot qualifications.
None of the moves address a structural problem in the informal system the US airline industry relies upon to recruit and train new pilots. In other regions, airlines offer ab initio training; not so in the USA.
Instead, aspiring American pilots must pay to receive their own pilot training and a pilot certificate from the US Federal Aviation Administration, in addition to the costs of college tuition and board. Upon receiving a transport pilot’s licence, most recruits are then required to “pay dues” at regional airlines, where low pay and Spartan working conditions still prevail.
Twenty years ago, the US regional airline industry was a fraction of its current size, and pilots could expect to quickly transition to higher-paying jobs at mainline carriers. The latter’s growth has been slower compared with regional airlines over the past two decades, leading to an uncertain carreer ladder.
New work rules have aggravated the shortage problem for airlines, but the causes are easily mischaracterised by the industry.
It was once commonplace for competitive pilot applicants to have more than 1,000h of flight time in a logbook. But regional carriers coped with rapid growth by lowering experience standards for new pilots to as little as 300h, exposing the travelling public to risks that made regulators uncomfortable.
The answer is not to roll back helpful safety regulations, but to address the underlying structural issues that have made the US pilot career track less attractive than in other parts of the world.