Coming Up Short on Airline Pilots

I was perusing the latest issue of Plane & Pilot Magazine and came across a very good article about the shortage of airline pilots that has been developing for the last few years and now is upon us.

The article’s author, Marc C. Lee, did a great job of summarizing the problem and how badly it is impacting the airline industry. In the article he quotes several industry experts who are well positioned to know how the shortage is going to shape the future of the airline industry and I want to include a few excerpts from the article.

“This July, Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, spoke at a luncheon in Wichita, Kan. He was addressing the very subject of a pilot shortage.

“The supply of pilots is going to be a major, major issue for us,” Cohen said. “The pilot shortage is coming, and it’s going to have a real-world impact.”

A pilot shortage is being fueled by several factors. The most pressing is the extension of the pilot-retirement age. In December 2007, the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65. Pilots who were age 60 when that mandate was passed will reach retirement age in December—just weeks away. Industry estimates are that some 2,000 pilots will reach mandatory retirement this year alone, starting a wave that will continue to decrease the airline-pilot population each year. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) estimates that 20% of current ATP and commercial certificates are held by pilots 60 and older.

Kit Darby, an airline hiring consultant in Peachtree, Ga., said an American pilot willing to fly for a foreign carrier in the Middle East, China or India can earn well over $100,000 a year plus housing and other perks. WASINC International, a foreign airline recruiting company, is currently offering $198,000 a year plus bonuses, plus a $4,000/month housing allowance for new Airbus pilots in Europe and China. According to Darby and other industry officials, thousands of furloughed U.S. pilots are now flying for foreign airlines. The attraction is obvious as opportunities abound.

With all the negativity in the industry, why would a career as an airline pilot make sense? The fact is that it remains an excellent choice if you look beyond regional-first-officer starting salaries. Even moderate experience boosts pay into a more desirable range.

For example, new pilots for the majors are earning at least double the $25,000 that new regional pilots start at, with rapid increases based on seniority. For example, industry salary sources show a 10-year Southwest Airlines captain earns more than $200,000, with three-week vacations and 15-17 days off a month. A highly experienced FedEx captain can earn $250,000 or more.

Will airline-pilot salaries and perks ever match their “Golden Aviation Era” heights? Nobody knows for sure, but what’s obvious is that there will be enormous opportunity with both regional and foreign carriers. It’s true that this shortage is just revving up, but when it’s in full swing, those with the right training will have the world open to them.

And if flying is in your blood, there will be jobs available. As Cohen smilingly said during his luncheon speech in Wichita, “They’re paying you to fly an airplane, and that’s pretty cool.”