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USAF working with US airline industry to address pilot shortage

The US Air Force and the nation's regional airlines have discussed developing a joint "National Training Academy" to help address a pilot shortage playing out across the USA.

"We have got to work together so we can help each other," says Gen Carlton Everhart, commander of the USAF Air Mobility Command. "We have to find ways to fix this hemorrhage."

The concept would be to create a school that provides pilots with advanced simulator training, and for that training to count towards the Federal Aviation Administration's requirement that new commercial pilots have 1,500h of flight time.

Currently, simulator training does not specifically count toward the 1,500h threshold.

"The vision is… to have a different way of training folks. It's going to take some legislation," Everhart tells FlightGlobal. "We are talking… about flight simulator time."

He made his comments during the Regional Airline Association's annual event in West Palm Beach last week.

The 2013 pilot qualification rule stemmed from the deadly crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009.

Regional airlines for several years have criticised the 1,500h rule as limiting the pool of available pilots. To meet the threshold, many pilots must accumulate additional hours after flight training, an expensive proposition that dissuades many from pursuing an airline career, airlines and their trade group have argued.

Republic Airways Holdings cited the pilot shortage as a reason for its 2016 bankruptcy filing, and Horizon Air in recent months cancelled thousands of flights due to a pilot shortage.

Executives at several large US regional airlines said in recent days that the pilot shortage remains critical, though they say recent pay raises have relieved some pressure.

"While we have found some near-term equilibrium in terms of supply, it's not sustainable in its current structure," says Dion Flannery, president of regional carrier PSA Airlines.

"Recruiting has ticked up, but not to the degree we want," Rick Leach, chief executive of Trans States Holdings, says of operating subsidiary Trans States Airlines. He adds that Trans States has parked eight aircraft due to a lack of pilots.

The US airline industry will require 50,000 new pilots between 2016 and 2026, according to the Regional Airline Association, citing data from a University of North Dakota study. Meanwhile, the number of pilots with active certificates declined by more nearly 1,000 monthly between 2009 and 2016, the RAA says.

Everhart says the USAF faces similar pressure.

Air Mobility Command, under which some 9,000 pilots serve, estimates it will lose some 229 active duty and reserve pilots in fiscal year 2017, and nearly 500 pilots annually between fiscal years 2018 and 2020.

Those pilots typically have accumulated 2,000h to 3,000h of flight time, and many flock to US airlines, which have become more attractive employers amid consolidation and strong financial results, says Everhart.

"We are unable to stop the demand for folks getting out," he says. "We are trying to get our hands around the reasons."

Everhart declines to comment about the merits of the 1,500h rule, noting that the legislation does not apply to the military.

But he says: "Simulator time ought to count toward flight time…. It's good foundational training."

Regional airlines and the Regional Airline Association have advocated that the regulation be eased by allowing pilots to earn credits toward the 1,500h threshold.

Specifically, the group has advocated credits for pilots who undergo structured airline training.

The regulation already provides credits to military pilots and to pilots who graduate from aviation programmes.

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