Solving the Pilot Shortage – Other Options?

Just three months from now, the United States aviation system is poised to experience one of the most significant regulatory changes in its history; the deadline for implementation of the requirements of Public Law 111-216. On August 2, 2013, along with many other requirements of the law, any pilot serving in an airline (Part 121) carrier will be required to have at a minimum an ATP pilot certificate with a minimum of 1500 flight hours. The ramifications of this are going to be felt throughout the entire aviation system from initial training, to commercial pilot career considerations, and most likely, in the service levels that airlines are able to maintain based on their pilot workforce capacity.

The FAA continues its work on a final rule that would address the requirements of Public Law 111-216, but that this point many in the industry doubt that it will be finalized before the hard date of the implementation of the law. The result will be the default implementation of the requirements of Public Law 111-216. There is no doubt from industry insiders who have been studying pilot sourcing models that this will limit our supply of available pilots for airline service.

There has been much discussion about a pilot shortage, and many are turning a blind eye to it, claiming that they have heard this wolf cry before, and there has never been a shortage in the past despite the “fear-mongering.” I would argue that just because when previous calls of wolf were for naught, it doesn’t mean that wolves are not real.

The Pilot Shortage is Here

Many senior pilots will argue with me about this, but he pilot shortage is already here. US airlines (primarily regional airlines) are experiencing the pilot shortage and have been for some time now. They are having a difficult time finding pilots to fill their hiring classes who will meet the new 1500 hour/ATP requirement that will become effective.

Senior pilots and airline pilots who started their careers in the ’70’s many times brush aside current arguments against a 1500 hour requirement, indicating that they, “had lots more flight time than that when they got their first airline job.” I know that this is true. The problem is that the types of work that they did to gain that experience before taking their airline job simply don’t exist anymore. This, coupled with expanded airline service over the last four decades has increased our demand as an industry for commercial pilots. At the same time, less pilots are being certificated each year (we have less than half the number of pilots currently than we did at our peak pilot population), reducing our potential pilot workforce. This is reality, it is math, and it has real ramifications. These ramifications have been seen in training and hiring practices throughout the industry.

Historically, hiring minimums did exceed 1500 hours for pilots to be considered for airline pilot employment. Over the past two decades this eroded and became more focused on specific training received, jet transition courses, and airline specific training that the airlines provided to new hires. The industry saw pilots hired as low sometime as 350 hours if they had specific and relevant training that an airline felt it could mold into a successful pilot. Senior pilots will argue that these “kids” aren’t safe, that they don’t have enough experience, and shouldn’t be able to take these jobs yet. That is a different argument than what I want to highlight here, instead, let’s think about why these hiring decisions were made.

Low time pilots were hired because airlines needed to hire pilots to operate. As the pool of available pilots went down, so did their hiring minimums. This doesn’t mean these pilots were unsafe, it just means that hours was no longer the hiring criteria. This simple fact, when considered in context, tells us we have had a pilot shortage for some time now. If there was a readily available, highly experienced, pool of pilots out there, airlines would hire the most senior pilots available. Any savvy human resources hiring department would recognize this fact. The reality is that they are not available.

In fact, in the recent weeks we have seen airlines announcing new hiring agreements with universities (WMU Aviators will be First in Nation in American Eagle Hiring Program – and (ATP Offers Airline-Sponsored Career Track – WEB ADDRESS )that now offers trainees direct hiring agreements with airlines before they even meet the minimum for hiring. The airlines are now looking to source pilots who “will become qualified” in the near future. This represents entirely new hiring dynamics, illustrating the fact that the airlines are currently in desperate need of candidates to fill their next hiring classes.

It Doesn’t Pay Enough

Further adding to our pilot shortage concerns is the cost/benefit consideration. Many potential career pilots see the career as not lucrative enough (at least in the first years) and may be driven away from entering into the pilot pool. Pilot pay is a topic for another conversation (although according to a Brown Aviation Lease study, pilots still have a greater return on dollar invested than doctors and lawyers –, but the effects are worth noting in consideration of pilot shortage. A recent study (New Study Challenges Pilot Shortage – indicated that paying more is the key to the only problem that exists. This is a not a view of the problem that fully represents all the complexities.

There is no doubt that we would all like to see entry level pilots paid more, but do to this isn’t as simple as the airline pushing a few million dollars across the table in pay. There is an obvious relationship between pay of staff and the overall business module for the airline. The traditional argument has been that if we pay more to the pilots, ticket prices will have to go up. This is likely, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. For an airline to pay more to its entry level pilots, they would have to work any change in pay structure out within labor agreements with their pilot unions. To just pay more to some and not others, would likely breach any number of National Labor Board regulations for the companies if not only their existing agreements with their pilots’ union. To pay more, is a much more complex issue that would take more negotiation and collaboration by all parties involved.

The International Option – Gaining Experience

Other historically available jobs that allowed pilots to gain experience are no longer in existence. So where should the next generation of pilots go to gain flight time? Go international. There are certainly many considerations for a potential pilot to evaluate if they are going to try to find a job as a pilot internationally, but the reality is that their hiring minimums are lower, and many times their pay is higher. Traditionally, the United States has been where many other countries send their pilots to train here (according to the FAA in 2011 approximately 23% of pilot certificates given in the United States were granted to non-US citizens receiving training here). They then go home and go into service in domestic or regional airlines in their home country. These pilots may gain some more experience, may get a multi-crew pilot license (a license that has limitations for pilots but allows them to fly in airline service at reduced flight experience times), or sometimes go directly into jobs as first
officers. Many of these airlines cannot fill their needs for pilots as they grow quickly. An option for US citizens may be to get trained here, and because they are not hirable here, take a 1, 2, or 3 year contract oversees to fly and gain experience. When done, they could consider coming back to the U.S. to fly for a domestic airline.

There are problems here, but not all are insurmountable. Many foreign carriers have strong preferential hiring for native talent or limit the length of time that a pilot may work for a foreign carrier. I expect these can be overcome if an airline needs bodies bad enough and a ready workforce of highly talented, well trained, U.S. pilots are willing to come to work for them. We have seen foreign airlines actively poach pilots from our domestic carriers in the past (Korean Air was highly successful at hiring furloughed American Airline pilots as one example). Another problem that we would feel here is that these pilots (if they choose to come back to the U.S.) will have gained experience in aircraft that are larger than our regional aircraft. Many of these airlines are flying aircraft such as Boeing 737’s and Airbus A320’s on which new pilots get to cut their teeth. With experience like this, these pilots would be unlikely to take the step backward in to a regional jet if they did come back to the U.S. T
his still leaves regional airlines at a loss on where to source pilots.

Reservists – Could Part-Time Pilot’s Be the Answer?

The military has a cadre of reserve pilots that fly big and complex airplanes that range from F16’s to KC135’s. Many of these pilots only fly a few hours a month. If we are going to think outside the box, could we find a way for regional airlines to have “reserve pilots” who only fly a few days a month and then go back to their day jobs?

How many pilot are there out there that in their 30’s and 40’s, who work in other professions that might be tempted if a regional airline asked them to fly 4-6 days a month? Does this solve the problem? Probably not entirely, but it does probably add some warm bodies to the right seats of regional carriers (who according to the Regional Airline Association are currently flying over 50% of the scheduled passenger flights in the United States).

Sure, there are some problems, but they may be able to be mitigated. The training costs for an airline might be high when considered with the number of hours of service one of these “reserve” pilots would put in, but if they were a “part-time” employee, perhaps the lack of costs for health benefits, full time pay, and other considerations would end up working out in the end. Maybe an airline would limit these types of pilots to only flying in first-officer capacities. There might be “union” concerns, but my guess is as long as these pilots work with established systems, they could be managed.

There may be some great finds in these pilots. Imagine an ex-air force pilot who doesn’t want to fly every day, but might be tempted by this model; think you would like them in the front of the airplane you and your family are riding on? What about a pilot examiner who might work mostly doing practical tests, but would be willing to fly a couple trips a month? I think there may be a reasonable number of pilots out in our system who meet the new hourly requirement minimums and who work other day jobs, but could and would be willing to give up a few days a month to fly. They might do it make a little extra money, to keep active in the pilot community, or just for fun. Let’s be honest, the thought of flying a jet still speaks to many pilots who work in other professions. They may not be willing to give up their $100K job as an attorney to work for $30K a year, but they might be very interested in giving up 6 days a month to fly on the side.

Time to Get Creative

Our pilot sourcing system has been static for the last few decades, and it has worked, mostly. With the legal and regulatory changes that the industry is experiencing, it is unlikely that the “old way” is going to cut it for the future. We need to get creative. My above comments are only a couple thoughts, I know there are more that must be developed. Any answers we come up with must be thought out logically, from a business perspective, and consider a big picture approach to our efforts.

Working toward the future, the direct hiring relationships between training providers and those seeking pilots for employ must be bolstered. Some companies and colleges/universities have started this already. Many colleges and universities have had long standing bridge or direct hire programs. Companies such as ATP have direct relationships for interview and/or application processes for their customers with airlines. Our industry relationships will need to beyond this, potentially to “sponsored” training eventually by airlines for candidates at specific training providers.

There are any number of reasons that individuals considering pilot careers may decide not pursue them further, but each of them does affect our pilot sourcing needs. As we have expanded airline service to more communities that were historically served 30 or 40 years ago, we require more pilots. Expanding need, while constricting supply, has created a pilot shortage. The implementation of Public Law 111-216 will further exacerbate this, restricting that source of pilots who were being hired by airlines (albeit mainly regional carriers).

A pilot sourcing shortage exists, and it is likely to get worse when Public Law 111-216 is fully effected (even though most airlines have already based their hiring decisions on this now so they don’t have to fire any non-compliant pilots when the date passes). If we look at the system globally, we may find other options. Perhaps agreements with foreign carriers will be needed for U.S. pilots to go gain experience before they are hirable here domestically. Perhaps we will have to look to new pilot pools we traditionally overlooked. In either case, new systemic approaches must be considered if we are to keep our airlines cockpits staffed with qualified and competent staff.

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