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Pilot Shortage Could Have Safety Implications

Spohrer Dodd

Last month, Indianapolis, Indiana-based Republic Airways Holdings, one of the nation’s largest regional carriers, announced it would cut 27 of its 243 aircraft from operation. The reason – The company simply cannot find enough qualified pilots. It’s just one testament to the growing shortage of highly skilled new pilots – a problem that could be exacerbated by new laws boosting pilot training and rest requirements. And it could significantly impact safety, say Federal Aviation Administration officials, industry insiders and aircraft accident attorneys.

Regional carriers provide an indispensable service to the overall US air travel system. Larger airlines outsource upwards of half of their domestic flights to smaller, less expensive partners to help save money and run their businesses more efficiently. One reason this outsourcing system is a big money saver is that salaries for pilots employed by major airlines are far higher than those of pilots flying planes for the smaller, regional aviation providers. And therein lies the root of the coming pilot shortage crisis.

It’s the larger carriers that set flight schedules and fares, sell tickets and purchase fuel. This leaves their regional counterparts with few revenue options, which limits their ability to provide their pilots with desirable wages. In fact, while many believe that work as a pilot of any sort is a high-dollar, glamorous job, the reality is a quite stark difference. Truth is, starting pilot salaries at 14 surveyed regional carriers average just $22,400 a year, and some pay as little as $15,000 annually – roughly the same as a full time minimum-wage worker.

Meanwhile, a recent development on the federal level is significantly increasing the financial and recruiting burden for smaller airlines. Rules implemented in August increase the minimum flight experience required for most commercial airline pilots to 1,500 hours, up dramatically from the previously required 250 hours. This makes becoming a pilot a far more expensive and lengthy process, which makes today’s starting wages seem even less attractive. With fewer people opting for aviation careers, carriers are less able to meet demand or remain financially stable.

But finances aren’t the primary issue. Many in the industry, including officials with the FAA, predict that the growing shortage, compounded by ever-increasing demand, will force airlines to hire pilots who are technically qualified but lack what those in the industry call the “right stuff.” It takes far more than textbook knowledge and technical skill to know just how to react in the event of an unforeseen emergency in the air.

Another new rule requires more rest for pilots – something virtually no one in the industry argues against, though it does boost current demand for qualified pilots by an estimated five percent. And, many of today’s most experienced pilots are Baby Boomers nearing the mandatory retirement age of 65. Meanwhile, aviation industry insiders predict a demand for 69,000 new pilots in North America alone (460,000 globally) by 2031. Yet, the FAA estimates new student pilot certificates have declined 31 percent over the past 20 years. All of this combined creates major concerns about the overall safety and quality of air travel in the coming years.

As you make travel plans, be sure to check the safety records of the airline you plan to use, particularly if it’s a regional service provider. Don’t hesitate to ask about the experience level and safety record of an airline’s pilots. And, if you are injured or lose a loved one in an aircraft accident, contact an experienced aviation attorney once you’ve received medical care.