A storm is brewing in the cockpit of U.S. airlines: a pilot shortage.
Thousands of pilots are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 65, just as it is becoming harder to be a commercial airline pilot.
New federal pilot-rest rules and tougher qualification standards requiring new pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience – up from 250 – have come at the same time that throngs of senior pilots will be retiring.
The new mandates were implemented in the past six months, in response to the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, that killed all 49 aboard the plane and one man on the ground.
National Transportation Safety Board hearings focused on whether the plane’s two pilots were properly trained and whether factors such as fatigue may have affected their performance.
Although job prospects for commercial pilots are bright, and regional airlines are scooping up newly minted aviators with signing bonuses, fewer young people are choosing aviation careers.
The reason: the cost of training and low entry-level pay – $20,000 to $25,000 a year.
New Jersey native Christopher Machado, 20, a junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., has wanted to be a pilot since he was a boy, watching the planes overhead at the Newark, N.J., airport, not far from his home.
At 17, he had a private pilot’s license – before he drove a car alone. Machado said the cost of his education and flight training will be about $250,000 before he can sit in the first officer’s seat of a regional airline, where commercial pilots usually start to build experience.
Machado said he’s lucky that his parents support his dream and are paying for it. “I know a lot of people who would be pilots, but for the money.”
Peter Doroba, 35, a captain for Spirit Airlines, grew up in Manayunk, N.J., and after high school worked as an automobile technician while attending Montgomery County Community College at night. Along the way, he earned a private pilot’s certificate.
He transferred to Embry-Riddle in Florida in his senior year, graduated and stayed on as a flight instructor and then a flight team manager, before being hired by Spirit in 2008.
Doroba said he finished college with $105,000 in loan debt – more than the mortgage on his house. “For years, people have talked about pilot shortages. I hope this one is real,” he said. “They are not going to have any pilots if they keep the wages down at poverty levels.”
In 2012, Boeing projected that 498,000 new commercial pilots would be needed in the next two decades.
“There is a pilot shortage. We’re just starting to see the effects,” said Capt. James Ray, spokesman for the US Airline Pilots Association, which represents US Airways pilots.
US Airways and American Airlines, which merged in December, have 14,000 to 15,000 pilots combined. “We’re going to lose almost half to attrition in the next 10 years – about 7,000 retirements,” Ray said.
American announced in September it would recruit 1,500 pilots over the next five years. Delta Air Lines is currently hiring 300 pilots.
Regional airlines fly short-haul or “express” flights for major airlines and operate half the nation’s scheduled flights and serve three-quarters of the commercial airports.
“When the majors need a pilot, they’ll go down to the regional and grab that regional pilot,” said Tim Brady, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus. “So the regionals then have to train somebody to fill that role.”
Regional airlines will feel the impact first, but the “real impact” will be on communities whose air service will be reduced, said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, a trade group. “Flights are going to get grounded and canceled; airplanes are going to be parked.”
The pilot supply has been “essentially flat” since 2000, Cowen & Co. airline analyst Helane Becker said in a client note. If major airlines continue to hire pilots away from the regional operators, the pilot pool “would dry up in 10 years.”
The military, traditionally a source of pilots, is keeping its pilots longer with wage increases and bonuses. Foreign airlines are luring well-trained U.S. aviators with hefty salaries.
After the crash near Buffalo, Congress looked at training programs and qualifications of airline pilots and “found that it took very little experience to be in the right seat of one of these regional airlines, so they changed the rules,” Ray said. “They’ve raised the minimum qualifications – that’s a good thing. The bad news: It’s not helping these young pilots.”
“A young person has to be far-sighted and look way out in the future to see the return on their investment,” Ray said. “Down the road, this is a lucrative profession. People in the top of this field make $200,000 to $300,000 a year.”
Over a lifetime, a commercial pilot will earn more than an aeronautical engineer – $5.8 million and $4.6 million, respectively, according to data analyzed by Embry-Riddle.
Aviation experts and pilots praise the new rules allowing more rest for pilots. But critics contend mandating 1,500 hours of prior flight experience (1,000 hours for graduates of four-year approved colleges and 750 hours for military aviators) is excessive. They note that both pilots on the doomed Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by Colgan, had more than 2,000 hours.
The new training regulations require high-altitude training, including weather-induced conditions such as icing, and more demanding scenarios during simulator flights.
On the Colgan flight, Capt. Marvin Renslow and first officer Rebecca Shaw were idly chatting as they neared Buffalo. They talked about the ice forming on the wings.
“I’ve never seen icing conditions,” Shaw said. She went on to say she wouldn’t mind spending a winter in the Northeast before upgrading to captain. Otherwise, she said, “You know I’d have freaked out. I’d have seen this much ice and thought … oh my gosh, we were going to crash.”