“The situation is bad and likely to get worse before it gets better.” So declares aviation consultant Kit Darby in reference to the ongoing shortage of pilots being experienced in the USA.
Since the first wave of the pandemic began easing in mid-2020, the country led the way in the industry’s recovery, especially as passengers returned in force to the largest domestic aviation market in the world.
However, this rapid ramping up of services created another problem, as airlines struggled to re-hire or find new pilots to replace those who had left at the peak of the crisis in spring that year. For getting on for two years now, the difficulties have continued, with incidents of bad weather, peak demand around holidays, and indeed staff absences as a result of Covid-19 causing spikes of operational chaos.
The pilot shortage is not new, of course, and long predates the pandemic. What Covid-19 did do, when it began spreading like wildfire in March 2020, prompting stay-at-home mandates and airline groundings, was turn that shortage – almost overnight – into a pilot surplus.
Some pilots accepted early retirement, with the major airlines seeing more than 5,000 taking this option, according to Darby. Others, anticipating a long lay-off or perhaps taking the opportunity to reappraise their work and career plans, opted to leave the industry.
The bounce-back has re-exposed the industry’s frailties when it comes to creating a pipeline of recruits for cockpit roles, and perhaps ensuring that the profession is attractive enough to retain more experienced pilots long-term.
“This year will produce 10,000 openings at the majors, possibly 15,000,” Darby notes. “That’s two to three times the previous record of 5,000 which has occurred three times in history, the most recent being the second half of 2021.
“Among the regionals, SkyWest lost over 250 pilots in March 2022 and about the same in January and February. That equates to 3,000 pilots lost per year and they only have about 5,000. This is not going to work,” the consultant says. “Pay and bonuses will increase, but more pay does not make more pilots, at least not right away. They need three to four years for training and experience, namely the 1,500-hour requirement.”
The 1,500-hour requirement for all commercial pilots, brought in by the Federal Aviation Administration after the 2009 Colgan Air crash (although both flightcrew killed in that incident had both logged more than 1,500h), has undoubtedly been a factor in the pilot shortage. With a few exceptions, would-be first officers must spend a large part of their early career accumulating hours, typically as flying instructors or in the general aviation market, before they can join an airline.
John Sullivan is the executive chairman of CommutAir, which operates under the United Express banner. He too observes an urgent shortage of flight crews, which he attributes to three key factors. “It’s been caused by: a decrease in pilots emerging from the military; an increase in entry requirements, particularly the rule requiring applicants to have attained 1,500 hours of flight time; and a retirement ‘bubble’ occurring at the major airlines,” he remarks.
“All companies, including ours, are competing harder for qualified applicants. No one knows when the tide will reverse, but clearly the current pattern – if it persists – is likely to cause more losses of air service at small and medium communities, something which is well under way and to which Congress should be paying close attention,” Sullivan says. “A positive response from lawmakers to increase GI Bill benefits for pilots, create loan guarantee programmes for flight schools and subsidies for minority students, could help prevent a catastrophic disruption to our nation’s air transportation system.”
Republic Airways’ president and chief executive, Bryan Bedford, observes that “for the first time since the new regulations were passed over a decade ago, there is a broad consensus that a pilot shortage actually does exist in the United States”. He agrees with Darby that the situation is most likely to get considerably worse before the bottom is reached.
“That’s really good news actually, because we have to acknowledge we have a problem before we can get the right people to engage on possible solutions,” Bedford says. “The bad news, however, is that there are very few things that can be done to avoid the service disruptions the shortage will cause in the very near future. That means many smaller communities in the US will either lose entirely their commercial airline service or experience significant decreases in their scheduled service. Less choice means higher ticket prices and less convenient service options.
“For Republic specifically, we are operating schedules that are 10%-15% lower than what we would otherwise operate if we have more pilots available,” he says. “Given the deepening shortage, we expect to continue to reduce the number of flights we can operate later in the year as we lose more pilots to American, Delta, United and other larger carriers who are in need of experienced pilots.”
Critics describe the 1,500h rule as “punching holes in clear blue skies” – in other words forcing young pilots to notch up hours in the cockpit for the sake of it: hours that do not necessarily make them a better or safer pilot when they graduate to a regional airliner.
Bedford certainly believes that not all hours of flight experience are equal. “Students who complete either a two-year or four-year academic programme and then fill their remaining flight time obligation as a certified flight instructor tend to perform reasonably well in our Embraer E-Jet commercial training program,” he says. “However, pure 1,500 hour candidates who obtain their flight time by flying non-complex aircraft in VFR (visual flight rules) pattern work tend to struggle in our commercial training environment.”
Bedford says this discrepancy was one of the reasons behind the airline opening its own flight training school, the Leadership in Flight Training (LIFT) Academy. Students who attend LIFT are trained from hour one in a “Part 121 operational mindset”, he says. “As they matriculate from LIFT to Republic, they are extraordinarily well prepared to excel in our commercial E-Jet training programme,” Bedford adds.
According to Sullivan, it takes about three months at CommutAir to get a new-hire pilot on the line, including classroom, simulator training and initial operating experience. “There is only about a two-week difference in the training duration, between a candidate with regional jet experience and one without,” he says.
A question which therefore has to be asked is whether the 1,500h rule should be dropped so that airlines can get pilots into the right-hand seat more rapidly (providing, of course, that training expenses can be met). The team at CommutAir does not expect that to happen. “We do believe, however, that there are some practical ways to address the pilot shortage and tap into the sub-1,500h pool of talent that was effectively ‘orphaned’ by the rule,” Sullivan says.
“It seems foolish that we can’t hire an 800-hour pilot who has been flying F16s in combat, but we can hire someone with 1,500 hours who has been towing banners over Miami Beach in a Cessna,” he continues. Simple accumulation of hours shouldn’t be the determining factor, he says. Rather, it should be the type and quality of training.
“One of the most effective ways to increase pilot supply, while respecting the intent of the 1,500-hour rule, would be to give special credit for structured, airline-specific training programmes which are designed to address two-pilot operations and crew resource management techniques in commercial jet cockpits. The FAA already has the authority to approve such programmes; they just need guidance to do so from lawmakers whose districts are losing air service,” Sullivan says.
Bedford is of a similar mindset, also placing emphasis on more structured training. “I think it is highly unlikely the 1,500h rule will be repealed and it is not something I or Republic are advocating. However, based on nearly four years of experience at LIFT, I can say confidently that we can train safer, more proficient commercial airline pilots in less than 1,500 hours,” he says.
“There have been substantial improvements in flight training technology and digital flight data capture from the flight training mission, which we can use to significantly improve individual cadet skills achievement by focusing on their weaknesses versus following a purely routine certificate attainment process,” he states. “A more rigorous training curriculum produces safer, more proficient pilots in less time and at lower cost for the students and their families. As an industry we need to work with our FAA to develop alternative means of compliance with the 1,500-hour rule, provided they are safer than the existing pathways.”
Bedford suggests other actions which could help the situation. “As we work through the shortage, we need to consider options that may help in the near term, such as increasing the mandatory pilot retirement age from 65 to 67; which also happens to correspond to our Social Security minimum retirement age,” he says. “And we should seek our Labor Department to include commercial airline pilot to the Bureau of Labor’s list of skilled worker shortages in order to allow foreign aviators, who qualify under our 1,500 rule, a faster pathway for immigration until we can produce an adequate number of pilots to meet our country’s growing demands for commercial airline pilots.”
Darby agrees that quality is more important than hours when it comes to a pilot’s abilities. “The total time is less important than good training, much of which can be accomplished in simulators,” he states. “For example, the ICAO MPL (Multi-crew Pilot License) is a better concept. So I support reduced total time with increased airline-oriented simulator training – like the MPL.”
While Darby views the situation in the USA as bad, other regions should not be complacent. “It is going to be even worse around the world, so we are relatively better off,” he asserts. Airlines everywhere, therefore, need to be working now to prevent severe pilot shortages in their markets.
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