Airlines across the world are reporting pilot shortages, but in the USA the situation is particularly worrying. The rapid recovery in passenger demand from the pandemic caught many in the industry by surprise, while other factors such as large numbers of retirements of experienced captains, and a shortage of new blood coming into the industry through regional and commuter airlines have exacerbated the problem.
Additional operational challenges caused by staff absences as a result of still large instances of Covid-19 infections have seen multiple flight cancellations in the past six to 12 months. However, the long term view does not look much more promising with industry expansion and retirements looking to continue outpacing the supply of new pilots. A number of communities are threatened with losing their air links, not because of insufficient passenger demand, but because airlines are unable to guarantee a regular service.
What can be done? In the USA at least, one solution being mooted is for overseas pilots to acquire employment visas. It may sound like a straightforward solution, but getting clearance to take on any job in the USA is not easy, whatever the industry. The applicant has to be able to make contributions of significant value to the country to earn a National Interest Waiver (NIW).
The USA grants employment-based visas to immigrant workers on a preference basis. The E-1 covers “Priority Worker and Persons of Extraordinary Ability”, while the E-2 visa covers “Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Persons of Exceptional Ability”. It is the latter through which pilots generally apply, but requirements are stringent.
On its website, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) explains E-2 requirements further. Those attempting to qualify need to be “Professionals holding an advanced degree (beyond a baccalaureate degree), or a baccalaureate degree and at least five years’ progressive experience in the profession”. The further criteria listed include having an academic record showing the candidate’s degree, diploma, certificate or similar award with the seat of learning clearly identified, letters from current or former employers showing that at least 10 years’ full-time experience, a licence or certificate which enables practice of the profession, salary history, professional association memberships plus any other notable recognition of achievements.
The US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) emphasises that it is working to create a robust pipeline of skilled and diverse professionals coming into the industry. “We know we must think differently about recruiting the next generation, and that includes continually making information available to them where they are and in a format they will embrace,” a spokesperson confirms. No comment was offered regarding the increased use of visas though.
The airlines in the USA which are hardest hit by the pilot shortage are the regional carriers. These operators are key entry points for budding aviators and have cadet programmes which offer assistance to applicants.
When it comes to bringing in overseas applicants at the regionals, Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association (RAA), reports that the organisation and its members are just starting to explore visa programmes. “It is a developing area of interest," she says.
“The US aviation industry is in dire need of qualified pilots, to the extent that one in five flights operated in 2019 is not being operated today, despite US domestic demand now exceeding that of 2019,” Malarkey Black adds. “Abroad, returning demand has been much more moderated, and many qualified pilots are in need of work. Given those mutual needs, it makes a lot of sense to come up with a carefully-prepared programme that can benefit all stakeholders.”
Many regional airlines’ cadet programs offer pathways for pilots – should they wish – to move on to a major carrier after qualification and a defined period of service. The larger carriers, however, are still worried about the numbers coming through to populate their flight decks. Their industry association, Airlines For America (A4A), confirms the concern.
“A4A and our member carriers are committed to investing in a variety of efforts to secure a pipeline of new pilots,” it says. “US airlines have implemented a number of initiatives including creating new pilot training programmes, enhancing recruitment efforts, tapping into communities to increase diversity – gender and race – and establishing programmes to address financial hurdles.”
The key change required from government is to make the National Interest Waiver for overseas pilots the norm, rather than the exception. On that subject, A4A is keeping its powder dry at present.
As noted, though, some pilots do get E2 visas. But it is never a certainty. For example, in its blog on the subject, New York-based immigration and business law firm Scott Legal explains that much “depends on the pilot’s specialized skills or knowledge and what they propose to do in the United States”.
The Scott Legal blog also points out that a pilot’s chances of success rely very much on their ‘proposed endeavor’, it says is at “the heart of every NIW petition”. The law firm highlights the need for the pilot to show that what they offer to the USA that will have national importance.
“By ‘national’ importance, USCIS is basically looking for broad benefits flowing from your work that extends beyond your immediate clients or employer, something that advances the field as a whole,” the blog adds.
Simply having piloting skills, therefore, won’t make the cut. Applicants need to offer more, for example, in training roles helping to develop homegrown talent, not just as an instructor but potentially designing improved training programmes.
Just as any pilot role requires, going above and beyond is what gets you there.
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