The shortage of US pilots forces airlines to cut flights, to seek solutions

Airline pilots pass through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images

The United States is facing the worst shortage of pilots in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travelers are returning after more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis has the industry looking for solutions.

At least one lawmaker is said to be considering legislation that could raise the federal government-imposed retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 years or older to extend aviators’ time in the skies.

A regional airline has proposed reducing the need for flight hours before joining a US carrier, and airlines are rethinking training programs to lower the barrier to entry. Earlier this year, Delta Airlines joined other large carriers in dropping a four-year degree from its pilot hiring requirements.

Several US airlines, including borderthey are recruiting some pilots from Australia. American Airlines is selling bus tickets for some short routes.

But some airline executives warn the shortage could take years to resolve.

“The shortage of pilots for the industry is real and most airlines simply won’t be able to carry out their capacity plans because there are simply not enough pilots, at least not for the next five or more years,” United airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimates that the regional airlines United works with currently have around 150 planes stranded due to a shortage of pilots.

The roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic has stopped hiring pilots as training and licensing slowed. Distributed airlines early retirement packages for thousands of pilots and other employees aimed at reducing labor costs when travel demand increased during the deep crisis.

“I feel like I left at the peak,” said a former captain of a large US airline who took an early retirement package in 2020.

Now the airlines are desperate to hire Other train pilotsbut the ride may take too long to avoid flight cuts.

Major U.S. airlines are looking to hire more than 12,000 pilots combined this year alone, more than double the previous annual hiring record, according to Kit Darby, a pilot compensation consultant and retired United captain.

The shortage is particularly acute in regional carriers that feed major airline hubs from smaller cities. While hiring and retention bonuses are back in those airlines, the pay is lower there than the majors and they are aggressively recruiting from those smaller carriers.

Based in Phoenix Mesa aircraft groupwhich flies to American and United, lost nearly $ 43 million in the last quarter due to increased flight cuts.

“We have never probed levels of attrition like this,” said Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa. “If we don’t fly our airplanes, we lose money. You’ve seen our quarterly numbers.”

Mesa takes about 120 days to replace a pilot who gives two weeks’ notice to go to another airline, according to Ornstein.

“We could use 200 drivers right now,” he said.

Some carriers like Frontier and regional airlines SkyWest they are recruiting pilots from Australia on special visas to help alleviate the shortage, but the numbers are small compared to their overall ranks and hiring goals.

Regional carrier Republic Airways, which flies to American, Delta and United, last month petitioned the U.S. government to allow pilots to fly the airline for 750 hours, half of the 1,500 currently required if they follow the carrier training program. There are already exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule, such as for pilots trained by the US military and for those who attend two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

The proposal received pushbacks from the families of the victims in 2009 Colgan Air 3407 crash, the latest fatal accident of a US commercial passenger airline. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and ushered in the so-called 1,500 hour rule, aimed at ensuring the pilot’s experience.

Senator Lindsey Graham, RSC, is considering introducing congressional legislation that could raise the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots to at least 67 from the current age of 65, according to people familiar with the plans. Graham. About one-third of qualified airline pilots in the United States are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the country’s airline pilots will reach retirement age within five years, according to the Regional Airline Association.

Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Reduced growth

The shortage of pilots and other workers has forced airlines to do so rethink their growth Floor. JetBlue Airways Other Alaska Airlines they are among the carriers that have recently reduced capacity.

SkyWestfor his part, he told the Department of Transportation that he plans to shut down service in 29 smaller cities that the government subsidizes through Essential Air Service.

Service reductions could isolate smaller U.S. cities, but Darby, the pilot’s pay advisor, said it could mean an opening for smaller competitors who don’t rely on regional airlines as much as major network airlines.

“If they don’t fly, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.

One of the biggest obstacles to hiring new pilots is the cost of schooling. While salaries for widebody captains of major airlines can exceed $ 350,000 per year, getting the qualification takes years.

At the ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, it costs nearly $ 92,000 for a full-time seven-month program to obtain initial licenses. It can therefore take around 18 months or more for pilots to accumulate sufficient hours to fly, often by instructing student pilots or sometimes by waving banners near beaches.

“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. “You can’t just let someone in from the street.”

In December, United began teaching first students at their flight school, United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with the goal of training. 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says it is aiming for half of that number to be women or people of color. The company covers the cost of training pilots up to the point of receiving the private pilot license, which is estimated to be around $ 17,000 per student.

Other carriers have turned to low-interest loans or other initiatives to ease the financial burden on students.

“There is no quick fix,” said Darby.