Airline Pilots: Is Anybody Interested in Being One?
Captain X is a training Captain for a well-known regional airline and occasional correspondent to AVweb and our aviation publications. We're publishing his compelling observations as a guest blog. --Paul Bertorelli
We can't quite put our fingers on what's occurring in the industry right now. I've talked to my counterparts at other regional airlines and they all are seeing the same thing. For lack of a better description, a large percentage of newly hired airline pilots just aren't as excited about their career prospects as they used to be.
During our last hiring boom in 2007 and 2008, it seemed as if we had people climbing all over each other just to get an interview. Now, we'll frequently call 10 for an interview and only five will show up. I don't know if other airlines are hiring them before we can interview them or what, but it just seems the level of interest in our industry isn't there.
Of those who do come to the interview, we are appalled at how many show up and can't pass a written test. Our interview test isn't that hard. It's straight out of the FAA commercial pilot written. We have a couple of questions we took straight from the AIM. I'm amazed at how many people who want to be airline pilots struggle to interpret a TAF! I mean if you want an airline job, wouldn't you at least review the rules on holding pattern speeds and what an ILS Critical Area sign looks like?
Then we send them on to a basic instrument proficiency checkout in an Elite PCATD. Again, it's shocking how many people can't scan a basic six-pack. Is it because Cessnas today have G-1000's? I actually interviewed one candidate who got so slow on an ILS that he stalled and went out of control. He probably would have gotten lost in the holding pattern, except he never got there because he turned the wrong way when I told him to go directly to the VOR. He couldn't read the HSI well enough to know whether he was TO or FROM.
Even those who do get hired seem to lack a basic knowledge of operating in an IFR environment. One of my instructors came to me one day in the middle of a lesson and he was extremely frustrated. He said he couldn't introduce any emergencies to the crew he was working with in the procedures trainer because they were struggling so hard just to navigate. And this was with the FMS fully functional!
It seems that there are a lot of students who think "close enough" is close enough. We tell them on day one of Basic Indoc (and every day thereafter) how important it is to learn their callouts, flows and profiles. Twenty-one days later, they're still arguing with us that they have the callouts down "pretty well." In our program, they don't even go to the simulator until they've spent 13 days in the procedures trainer, and we still have students who struggle to get ready for the sim.
We've discussed this amongst ourselves and think there are many issues at work here: (1) Maybe the younger generation just has a sense of entitlement. I know I sound like an old man here, but there really is a perceptible difference in work ethic from young pilots today and new pilots just four years ago. One of my most senior ground instructors mentioned that it's just different this time around.
(2) The industry has driven the good people away: The last four years have not been kind to the airline industry. Maybe today's best and brightest have decided to go to medical school instead of pursuing their real dream of aviation. I live in the midwest and I think everyone around here knows someone who used to fly for either Delta or Comair who has been devastated by what happened at Delta over the last few years. A friend of mine on furlough tried to get a state grant to get re-trained with a 737 type rating so he could apply to Southwest. In the past, other pilots have been able to do that. This time around, the state of Ohio denied his request by saying that basically they didn't think there would be enough flying jobs in the future to support him and that his retraining grant needed to be spent pursuing another career. It doesn't take long for word to get around that flying isn't exactly the positive career choice it used to be.
(3) The upcoming 1500-hour / ATP minimum requirement for all airline pilots might be scaring away good people. The ATP rule won't go into effect until 2013, so this is a perfect time to get an airline job. In two years of flying 85 hours a month, it'll be easy to beef up the logbook. This may be the last time in history that a guy with less than 1000 hours has a shot at an airline career. But I'm concerned that some pilots have only heard part of the story and have given up, thinking the rule is already in effect.
(4) Now that we're all wired and connected to the cloud, we just process information differently: My company is taking a hard look at our training procedures to see if we can present the information in a way that's more exciting for tech-savvy pilots. Unfortunately, many regional airlines see their training departments as expenses rather than investments, so there's not exactly an open checkbook for new training initiatives.
(5) Economic hard times have made it difficult for instrument pilots to stay proficient if they're paying for their time themselves. I'll be honest; I don't know if I could have afforded to get all my ratings in today's fuel environment. I paid between $50 and $85 an hour to rent most of my training planes, and I struggled to do that. That was when avgas was about $1.50 a gallon. Throw in reduced hours at work or downright unemployment, and staying proficient takes a back seat. We're seeing a lot of people coming in the door who haven't touched an airplane for three years!
(6) No one is getting commercial pilots' licenses any more. The FAA will tell you that the number of commercial pilots licenses issued has plummeted in the last three years. It is only a fraction of what it was four years ago. That means that the regionals are going to be competing for a smaller and smaller pool of pilots. When that happens, the quality of the candidate pool remaining quickly drops.
Everyone on the inside of the industry sees it, but none of us knows exactly what "it" is yet. I personally think it's a combination of all the above factors.
I'm not sure what the answer is, but we are working hard to find one.