A pilot shortage may be about to bite, but the major carriers are likely to be unaffected

Karen Walker/ATLANTA

It seemed almost impossible three years ago, but the airline pilot is a wanted commodity again. In the USA, it is believed that almost every major airline will be hiring pilots over the next few months - something, which has not happened since the mid-1980s. Already, Delta Air Lines has recalled all of its furloughed pilots and has begun a new-hire recruitment drive. American Airlines has recalled its laid-off pilots and might begin hiring in the New Year, while Continental Airlines could follow suit in late 1997 or early 1998. Ironically, the latest boom in pilot hiring promises to be so large that some are asking whether there will be sufficient numbers of pilots to fill the vacancies.

Kit Darby, president of Atlanta, Georgia-based career consultancy Aviation Information Resources (AIR), believes that a shortage is possible, but points out that "pilot shortage" in the USA means something different from that in Europe or the rest of the world. "I think we are starting to see the vestiges of a pilot shortage here," says Darby. "For a lot of under-employed pilots - and there are many of them - they find it difficult to understand about pilot shortage when they cannot get the job they want."

Darby explains that, even at peak hiring times, there is no shortage of people in the USA who want to be pilots because of the relative ease with which they can get themselves trained, and the potentially high rewards.


What most of these pilots or would-be pilots are seeking, however, are top-of-the-line positions with the major carriers. The reality of the present job boom in the USA is that the major carriers will still be able to pick and choose. Shortages are more likely to be felt among the nationals, which usually offer less attractive pay and benefit packages and, even more likely, among the regionals. "At the lower levels, we think they are going to get killed," says Darby.

According to AIR's figures, some 11,000 pilot job openings are expected to have become available across the USA by the end of 1996 - up from 8,814 in 1995. The peak year, however, is expected to be 1997, when around 12,000 vacancies are possible. AIR bases its predictions on the strong relationship it has observed between airline profits and hirings - showing that an almost one-to-one ratio exists between the two - and the assumption that 1997 will also be the peak profit year for most majors in the current airline economic cycle.

An important factor in this year's hiring boom has been the decision by Delta to begin a hiring programme on top of its recall of all remaining laid-off pilots. The Atlanta-based carrier last engaged new pilots in 1991, but has enjoyed profitability over the past 18 months, has established a new four-year contract with its pilots and has launched a new, low-cost, domestic operation, Delta Express.

The airline says that it expects to fill slots for about 2,000 new pilots over the next 12 months - but most of those slots will be filled internally by moving first officers to the left-hand seat. There will remain, however, some 500 vacancies, predominantly because of an early-retirement programme, which Delta launched as part of its Leadership 7.5 campaign to reduce operating costs. Even with competing majors expected to launch their own recruitment programmes, Delta is confident that it will have no trouble filling those 500 posts.

"We are not going to be lowering our standards. Delta will never compromise our safety standards and we don't see any problem for us getting the very best," says the airline. "There is still a pool out there."

Delta is well known for hiring mostly ex-military pilots, and the airline confirms that it expects a "large percentage" of its new-hire batch to come from this source again, but this is a dwindling resource. Delta will almost certainly have to employ a larger percentage of civil pilots than it has done before and might consider changing some of its recruitment standards and procedures, while keeping the minimum requirements unchanged.


While the "hard" requirements - such as hours of flying experience - stay fixed, there are certain "soft" requirements that airlines can adapt if they want to cast a wider net in their searches for new pilots. These include standards of vision, height, weight and education, and the consideration of helicopter experience. While former helicopter pilots have not traditionally been viewed as good candidates for airlines, there exists a new generation of military rotary-wing pilots who are operating in multi-crew environments, often with extensive instrument-flying experience. Their adaption to the "glass cockpit", therefore, can be an easier one.

Airlines can also open up the "windows"- or periods of time - in which they will receive applications. "In a time of [pilot] over-supply, you can only submit a application in a certain week or month - airlines like Northwest, FedEx and Southwest all do this - but, as the shortage gets worse, we expect to see those windows getting longer, perhaps from one month to two months," says Darby.

The increased demand for new pilots is seen also at flight-training schools across the USA. In Denver, Colorado, United Airlines' UAL Services division will open a new simulator centre in May 1997 to increase the capacity of its flight-training school by more than 30%. UAL Services, created in April 1995, now operates 26 full-flight simulators (FFS) and four fixed-base simulators for Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft types. The new centre will house an additional ten FFS and will focus on new aircraft types, such as the Airbus A320 series and Boeing 747-400 and 777, in line with United's aircraft acquisition plans.

Scott Brennan, manager of UAL's Flight Training Services, says that the expansion is driven by two factors. "We are seeing a combination of United's training requirement going through the roof, along with increased demand from outside customers," he says. UAL customers include Air New Zealand, America West, Air Slovakia, American Trans Air, Continental Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Saudi Arabian Airlines and UPS.

"We have seen an increased demand for new pilots, as well as increases in the amount of training," says Brennan. "The industry as a whole is growing at a fairly healthy clip - about 6% per annum - and that is coupled with the fact that you have a very senior group of pilots who are retiring. There is also a growing number of training demands on pilots, such as cockpit-resource management and wind-shear training. That is what is driving pilot training. We are responding to that.

"At United, we are shifting from the classic aircraft types, such as the 737s or [McDonnell Douglas] DC-10s, to the modern aircraft types such as the 777 and new Airbus types. Very few aircraft are being retired, however - we are selling the classic types to either the cargo carriers, to non-competing airlines, such as those in the Third World or Eastern Europe, or to heads of state. That means there is still a demand for training on the classic aircraft types, so we are retaining the older simulators and selling time on them," he says.

Scott agrees that there is a growing worldwide shortage of pilots but, like Delta and the other US majors, sees no problem for United. "All of the major training centres, apart from one, are in the USA. We can take pilots from the military, the regionals or from the schools. At United, our entry requirements are very high compared with many airlines - with a minimum of 2,500h required, but for every one opening we have 50 applicants. We have no problem filling our vacancies. We get asked by overseas airlines if we rent out pilots but, of course, we never do."

Brennan believes that this year and 1997 will be the peak times in terms of hiring, but says that, if there are any shortages, it will be in training capacity for new aircraft types - especially the 747-400, 757 and 777. "One of the most interesting things happening now is that there are three or four fleet-types where capacity is very, very short - almost to the point of not being able to meet demand. There is also a lot going on in the industry now in terms of hiring and technology transfer. The rapid growth in technology has become an issue in the way that you train pilots - how do you keep them to the right level of proficiency when they are being asked to do less and less in the cockpit? That is the impact of technology," says Brennan.

Flight-Safety International's Training Systems division, one of the largest independent providers of airline flight training, has also seen a record number of pilots being placed in jobs this year. At the division's Airline New Hire Programme organisation, in Orlando, Florida, 1,128 pilot candidates, are expected to be placed by the end of 1996, compared with 943 in 1995 and 843 in 1994. Known projections for 1997 stand at 800. Most of these pilots are going to US non-jet regionals and have a minimum of 1,200h, including 200h multi-engine experience, and a first-class medical record.


"It has been a very active year," says programme manager Beth Thornton. "We have been placing, typically, about 100 candidates per month, but, in March, we placed 143, which is very high." Thornton is seeing a high attrition rate among US regionals as the most highly qualified captains leave for the majors, creating new-hire openings and opportunities for rapid promotion from first officer to captain. Yet the marketplace remains competitive, observes Thornton, and airlines are able to maintain their minimum requirement standards.

The message that pilots in the USA seem to be getting, is that they can, at long last, enjoy a favourable climate, but they still have to be highly qualified and well-prepared to compete in the marketplace. "We tell people that they must start early, even in a good market," says Darby. "It's well known in the industry that the three things that matter most are seniority, seniority and seniority." As Darby points out, there is no shortage of people in the USA - and no shortage of people who choose flying as a career. Making it a success, however, remains difficult, even when the jobs are beckoning.

Source: Flight International