Solving the Pilot Shortage – New Solutions Developing As the Shortage Develops

The question of a pilot shortage continues to draw comments from all sides of the discussion, showing that interests instead of fact may be what are gaining media press, clouding the real situation from real analysis.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) contends that there is, “There’s no pilot shortage. It’s a pilot PAY shortage!” If you think this is a factual representation, it is worth remembering that it is the job of ALPA to represent pilot interests and to push for an increase in pay. If I was doing the job there, I would say the same thing. But that doesn’t mean the statement wouldn’t be biased, serving of the interests of a specific constituency, or even self serving of the Union itself. I also can’t say I disagree that some levels of pilots to need to get paid better. (Listen to a recent discussion with ALPA representatives here – http://www.wmfe.org/pilot-shortage-experts-weigh-in-on-causes-and-impact/).

In direct contradiction are statements by Regional Airline Association (RAA) representatives indicating that their members are experiencing shortages of pilots to hire. A recent Flying Magazine article directly addressed comments by RAA representatives – “RAA: Pilot Shortage Has Started” – http://www.flyingmag.com/news/raa-pilot-shortage-has-started. I can’t tell you RAA is entirely without a vested interest either. The dynamics of relationships between regional airlines and the major airlines with whom they do work can be complex and confusing. To fully understand the perspective I would encourage anyone to read more about how major airlines sub-contract routes to regional airlines and how the compensation matrix affects the profitability potential of the regionals. In many cases, they can’t just charge whatever they want to the major airline for the routes they fly and this constricts their overall budget, which affects what they have available to pay their pilots.

What I can tell you however, is that solutions to the ATP pilot needs for all airlines are starting to develop since the final rules went into place on August 1, 2014. The question is are the solutions that are emerging going to be enough to keep the flow of pilots to the airlines at sufficient levels.

Just a few days ago, the FAA released its 2014 Knowledge Test data sets, giving the numbers of each type of test that was given through the last year. The ATP knowledge test is a mandatory item that pilots must complete prior to becoming certificated for flying for any airline in the United States. Looking backward, we saw the following numbers of ATP Airplane Knowledge Tests administered by year:  4,214 in 2009, 5,617 in 2010, 6,922 in 2011, 8,192 in 2011, 8,535 in 2013 and a staggering 27,254 in 2014. (http://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/test_statistics/)

The high number of tests in 2014 is an anomaly and is the result of many pilots “getting it done before the rules change.” In fact, it was completely expected and almost all of those tests were completed prior to the August 1 effective date of new rules. Since then, a mere 179 ATP Multi-Engine Knowledge Tests (the test that is now required for airline service) have been administered (120 of them have been in 2015). While we can’t count on them all to end up as airline pilots, it does represent a pool of pilots who at least have the knowledge test completed and won’t need to complete the new ATP Certification Training Program requirement that is now in place.

The question is, while this pool of pilots exits, can the industry respond to put in place sufficient training capacity to build a new flow of pilots back up to the typical 5000-8000 pilots a year that we historically saw completing tests?

I don’t know if we are there yet, but some companies are starting to get very creative (or arguably, desperate) with their solutions that are being offered.

A few companies have stepped up to provide ATP CTP training courses. At this time, six are FAA approved to provide the course that allows pilots to take the ATP Multi-Engine Knowledge Test, a pre-requisite for an ATP practical test (commonly combined with a type rating checkride). Visit (https://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/atp/media/ATP_CTP_Providers.pdf to see the current list of approved providers). The fact that there are only six providers at this time is without a doubt the reason that less than 200 people have been able to take ATP Multi-Engine Knowledge Tests since the implementation of the new requirements. But more providers are coming on-line slowly. This is one solution to the pilot shortage.

As providers of ATP CTP courses become FAA approved, not only is throughput of pilots through the training increased, but competition will drive the price down. Sporty’s is probably the lowest cost at the moment at an advertised $4,500 and they recently announced expansion of their capacity. (http://www.sportys.com/pilotshop/atp-certification-training-program-atp-ctp.html) I remember sitting in numerous meetings as the industry debated and discussed the proposed rules a few years ago and estimates of course costs above $30,000 were not uncommon. The market is responding to the training needs and competition has driven these wild estimates down to a real number.

Airlines and training providers have become aggressive at recruiting. A few short years ago, airlines had the pick of the litter of pilots. They didn’t need to offer signing bonuses, training at their cost, or any other incentives to get pilots to work for them. In fact, pilots almost had to beg for jobs. This isn’t the case anymore. The changes in our pilot training requirements and our pilot pool have forced training providers and airlines to become competitive as they recruit pilots to fly for airlines.

ATP, one of the largest providers of flight training in the United States recently announced a partnership with Mesa Airlines  offering tuition reimbursement for pilots who work for and train with ATP and sign a commitment to fly for Mesa Airlines when they meet hiring minimums. “This agreement will allow for a substantial portion of that payment to be subsidized by the pilot’s future employer, Mesa Airlines.” Effectively, this is an example of an airline paying for pilots’ training in exchange for a commitment to fly for them when their training is completed and they meet hiring minimums. While this is the first example I have come across of this, I have no doubt that ATP will expand this program with other airlines and that other providers will seek similar agreements with airlines. (https://atpflightschool.com/news/2015-03-06-atp-mesa-tuition-reimbursement.html)

Envoy has put together a pipeline program that represents partnerships with multiple collegiate aviation programs to attract pilots. Including $10,000 signing bonuses with a two-year contract commitment, they are using this to attempt to attract pilots from collegiate aviation programs as a solution to their pilot shortage concerns. (https://www.envoyair.com/home/careers/job-preview/university-partnerships/)

Endeavor Air seems to be the biggest bidder so far.  Endeavor is offering pilots up to $80,000 in Retention Payments through 2018.  For new hire pilots who elect to fly with Endeavor, they may earn up to $20,000 each year in annual retention payments through 2018 along with their standard compensation package. (http://www.mesaba.com/pilots.html) I have no doubt that this is an attempt to work around and bring first officer pay up without having to work under the collective bargaining agreements that bind pay scales that the airlines have negotiated with their unions.

In another example, GoJet Airlines has a call out on the front page of their website  indicating that they are “currently offering a $8,000 signing bonus with no training contract” for pilots. This training program offers pilots the training for and completion of an ATP CTP course provided by GoJet along with their aircraft type/ATP checkride as a part of the training, all at the expense of GoJet. This is a big gamble. GoJet is not only forking out a nice bonus for pilots who complete training, but the fact that they are not requiring a training contract is a big gamble. GoJet is gambling that the pilots they train won’t just go through training, get a type rating/ATP certificate, then leave for another job somewhere else. But it is a solution to the pilot shortage they are experiencing. They are offering attractive terms and training to attract pilots. (http://www.gojetairlines.com/)

Even the U.S. Air Force is noting that it expects shortages of fighter pilots. In a recent article  the U.S. Air Force indicated that one of the factors in the shortfall of pilots they expect is the fact that airlines will hire approximately 20,000 pilots over the next ten years. The Air Force isn’t above attraction and retention efforts either. The service offers Aviator Retention Pay payouts for eligible pilots who agree to serve for nine more years, at a rate of up to $225,000. Fighter pilots, other valuable pilots and combat systems officers who sign up for five more years can also get a $125,000 bonus. (http://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/careers/air-force/2015/03/20/fighter-pilot-shortage-air-force/25033413/)

There are other wilder solutions to some of the pilot shortage questions that have been discussed that may find their way to the table of consideration or even into the reality of our airline system. Some have discussed non-U.S. pilots flying U.S. routes. I doubt this would ever be allowed. But perhaps an enterprising airline that had a based Canada or Mexico could run some of our border routes with a based outside the U.S. and fly connections between points such as New York and L.A. with a connection maybe in somewhere like Winnipeg instead of Denver. I know it may sound like that would never happen now, but is it so far-fetched as being practical? How about hiring part time pilots who are ATPs but may not want to fly full time for an airline? I think if an airline came to me with that offer I personally would probably say yes.

As regional airlines face pilot staffing challenges, some have had to constrict routes. If they have to constrict routes enough, I could even see a point where their services become available at a premium and the major airlines end up needing to bid against each other for regional airline services. With over 50% of flights in United States being completed by regional airlines, their services are vital to bringing passengers to the airports out of which the major airlines operate. If the regionals don’t bring the passengers there, the airplanes of the major airlines won’t have full seats. The system components are all dependent on each other to be successful.

It is unlikely that any major stoppage of flying will result from the constriction of the pilot pool we are experiencing, but there are definitely growing pains. Airlines and training providers are working hard to start creating the solutions to this shortage today so it doesn’t stop our industry.

We will need more creative programs. Without a doubt we need many more providers of ATP CTP courses to get our flow through up to the point where we are providing enough pilots to replenish the pool when our glut of pilots from last year’s anomalous year of ATP Knowledge Test takers has all been hired. And we need to continually monitor and promote how we attract new pilots to the career path.

While some still disagree that a shortage exists, others are recognizing that it exists and working on solutions. I have no doubt that a shortage exists. It is going to cause hiccups, struggles, and changes in our pilot sourcing matrix. But the industry is starting to develop solutions even as you read this post. Will it be enough?


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