While aerospace manufacturing and production are booming, the airline industry is struggling to deal with a growing pilot shortage that’s expected to worsen in the coming years. Various factors are contributing to this problem, and the combined effects are predicted to pummel the industry.
In response, the airline industry is partnering with universities and flight schools to institute pilot career path programs, increasing pilot salaries, investing heavily in autonomous flight technology, and attempting to relax the 1,500 flight hours rule.
Causes of the Pilot Shortage
Most of the pilots in the industry are boomers. They make up roughly 50% of the workforce, and will be looking to give their wings a rest within a decade or so. The industry managed to move the retirement age from 60 to 65, but this gesture doesn’t fully address the problem.
Flight programs are very expensive. The average student can end up spending close to $200,000 for flight certification. The astronomical cost doesn’t pair well with the salaries currently being offered for commercial flying, which range from $25,000 to $140,000 annually. ($140,000 is usually offered to seasoned, highly skilled pilots — not for those just coming in.) Some people circumnavigate the high cost of flight programs by joining the Air Force or the Navy, but this doesn’t mitigate the low salaries, which often push pilots to look for more lucrative opportunities offered by international airlines and private jet charter companies.
In 2013, the 1,500 flight hours rule went into effect. This stipulates that co-pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flight time to qualify for an Air Transport Pilot certificate. In order for co-pilots to be promoted to captain, they must have an additional 1,000 flight hours. These changes were made in response to the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, New York. Although well-intentioned, this safety precaution has only worsened the pilot shortage.
Addressing the Problem and Looking Ahead
The three major U.S. airlines, Delta, United Airlines, and American Airlines, have created carefully guided programs that simplify the process of becoming a pilot. These programs offer qualified candidates financial assistance and guarantee well-paying jobs with the airlines upon successful completion of the programs. These airlines have also raised pilot salaries and sweetened the deal with signing bonuses, an incentive that began in 2015.
The airline industry does have a backup plan in place if pilot recruiting doesn’t go as expected: autonomous flights. The industry has invested a lot of money in autonomous flight technology in order to get ahead of the coming changes, and there have been many notable advancements in recent years. However, it’s not yet sophisticated enough to serve as the sole alternative to human pilots. Companies like Boeing and Airbus are making planes in record time, but they cannot fly themselves just yet.
The airline industry must do all it can to resolve the issue. In the meantime, various airlines — both domestic and international — are resorting to pilot poaching to stay out of the red.
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