The Airline Pilot Shortage in the U.S. to Effect Smaller Markets Most

Airlines anticipate a pilot shortage in coming years that could cut into service of small-market airports the most.

Pilots in general aren’t young workers, according to Denny Kelly, a former pilot and now an aviation consultant with Kelly-James and Associates in Dallas. He says the average age of a commercial airline pilot is about 48.

“You’ve got to remember 5 to 10 percent of these pilots will retire every year,” he said.

He pointed out American Airlines, whose regional carrier, American Eagle has been in bankruptcy reorganization and has lost pilots in recent years. If trends continue, he could envision American cutting back service to smaller communities if it needs to shift regional pilots to longer routes.

“If Eagle or American starts having a pilot shortage they’re going to have to cancel flights, and the first ones they’re going to cancel are the smaller markets,” Kelly said. “If there’s only two flights, that’s a pretty small market, and that would be a place they’d look to cut. It’s going to affect a lot of people a lot of ways.”

A shortage of pilots could indeed hit smaller markets, said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airlines Association, based in Washington, D.C.

“I absolutely think that small communities, and even much larger markets, will be in jeopardy of losing their services, and that is not only by nature of the airline business but by the potential of pilot shortage that could hit almost at any time,” Cohen said. “The concern is well-founded.”

Rules that require an 1,500 hours of flight time for new pilots need to be reviewed, Cohen said.
“That … is the single biggest barrier to getting new pilots into the pipeline,” he said.

Experts say some airlines could be strapped for pilots by the end of the year as current pilots reach mandatory retirement age of 65 and rules from the Federal Aviation Administration requiring extra training take hold.

Kelly cited Boeing Aircraft Co. estimates that the world’s airlines will have to hire 460,000 pilots in the next 20 years. Flight schools are not turning out enough candidates, and the people they do turn out don’t have enough experience.

Flight schools could take on a more important role, Kelly said. He thinks the airlines should join with flight schools to train aspiring pilots in bigger airplanes. But the major airlines are chronically strapped for cash.

The airlines once got a lot of pilots from the military, but those numbers have dwindled as airlines have disappeared and rules have changed. The military used to require a five-year obligation, Kelly said. Today, military pilots sign on for 11 years.

“You got out and were 25-28 years old, and the airlines gobbled you up,” he said. “That isn’t the case now. Plus, there’s not that many guys, and once these guys get 11 years in, why not go up nine more and get a retirement?”

Commercial captains can make $200,000 a year, and co-pilots make good money, too, Kelly said.

American Airlines has about 8,000 pilots — down from a peak of 11,000. The airline says it will need 800 more to accommodate new FAA rules that mandate longer rest periods — from eight to 10 hours — if the new FAA regulation takes effect, Kelly said.

The biggest problem, though, is the wave of retirements. Another problem is that Foreign Carriers are offering jobs to experienced pilots that pay 20 to 30 percent more than some American jobs, Kelly said.
“If I’m 40 and flying for American airlines and flying co-pilot on a 737-800, and Qatar Airways will pay twice what you’re making to be a captain, what are you going to do?” he asked.