GAO: Mixed Data on Pilot Shortage

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A new report released this week by the Government Accountability Office offers a mixed view of whether the much-discussed airline pilot shortage actually exists, but it does confirm that regional airlines are having trouble finding qualified pilots. The GAO report (PDF), which was done at the behest of Congress, found that the projected need for pilots over the next decade will be between 1900 and 4500 a year. And while the GAO says data indicates there may be enough trained pilots to fill these jobs, many of them may either be working abroad or in other industries where the pay is much higher.

In its research, the GAO cited another study that found that the pilot shortage will become acute, partially because flight schools report fewer applicants entering training due to escalating costs and higher hours requirements for starting airlines pilots. “Such costs,” says the GAO, “deter pilots from pursuing a pilot career.”

Hiring shortages appear to be most acute for regional airlines, which pay substantially less than mainline airlines who can draw from a pool of more experienced ranks, including the military. According to the GAO report, 11 of 12 regional airlines surveyed failed to reach their recruitment goals last year.

According to ALPA, the average starting salary for first officers in regional airlines is $22,400, but the GAO report found pay levels below that. For example, the first officer killed in the 2009 Colgan Air crash at Buffalo in 2009 had earned only $16,000 in the previous year of her employment at the airline. For its part, ALPA has questioned claims of pilot shortages, claiming there are enough pilots to fill the ranks, but that fewer are willing to work for the low entry salaries the industry is offering.

Regionals are beginning to respond to their hiring shortfalls by offering hiring bonuses. Two regionals, according to GAO, have offered $5000 hiring bonuses and one offers up to $10,000 in tuition reimbursement. But rather than bringing new hires into the industry, these efforts have tended to attract applicants away from other, poorer paying regionals, according to the GAO’s findings.

In addition to hiring bonuses, the GAO report recommends that airlines might consider training their own pilots and improve wages, benefits and working conditions to attract qualified applicants. It also suggests relaxing hiring requirements, but the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, requiring a 1500-hour minimum and ATP for first officers, doesn’t give airlines much leeway in minimum requirements.