The Unstable Training Environment and The Coming Pilot Shortage

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Congress has mandated a 1,500 hour minimum flight time requirement for scheduled air carriers next summer, and unless FAA regulations come along to supersede it the "impending pilot shortage" that even the general media  has latched on to could become a reality sooner than later. When regulation outpaces thinking, and policy is made without concern for data, supply and demand often get thrown out of whack. In this case, it's reasonable to assume that if this 1,500 hour rule is fully implemented, it will cost prospective pilots far more money and time to become professional airline pilots. And fewer and fewer pilots will enter the pipeline as many sensibly opt out of the arduous quest to reach the arbitrary 1,500 hour mark.

The pilot pipeline is precarious enough, right now. Lengthening it makes a continuos and positive flow of well-trained professional pilots that much less likely.

Where We Are

Our industry exists with varying degrees of profitability and requires huge capital investments from all who participate. That's true in the semiconductor world as well. But the chip business constantly trains its employees and hires them right out of high school or college. Meanwhile, our industry demands an investment equivalent in time and money to a medical degree before a pilot can expect to be considered for the minimal wages earned by co-pilots flying a regional turboprop.

Our industry demands that today's students make an arguably irrational and potentially fiscally unsound decision. They'll choose to spend four years and maybe $250,000 to obtain a college degree. Then they'll work and/or pay to obtain a CFII/Multi. After that, they'll work for peanuts, and possibly part-time, instructing for two or three years to rack up 1,500 hours. All the while, they'll be paying off huge loans and otherwise starving, or perhaps financially burdening their parents by living at home. That might get them a shot at the majors ... or maybe the minors.

It's been years since the Colgan Airways crash, and it's Congress -- not the FAA -- that has mandated changes to flight-time requirements for crew to "prevent anything like this from happening ever again." Congress did what politicians do best: it caved to special interests. They enacted laws without consulting either the FAA or the industry that those laws will regulate. Needless to say, they did it without following the FAA's normal NPRM process, and the training industry knows that the result will not enhance safety.

And in spite of (or in addition to) the flight time mandate, the list of core issues that affects the supply of future airline pilots remains:

  • Pilot pay for airline pilots. (We need to see it increase.)
  • How major Universities and Colleges finance flight students. (This is a huge issue that gets little attention.)
  • Practically addressing how a 1,500 hour flight time requirement produces a pool of better-qualified pilots seeking jobs in the right seat. (A premise with which I disagree.)

Better training makes better pilots -- not a block of time in the logbook devoid of any directed, concrete objective. Most non-aviation media outlets fail to grasp that. The flying public might believe that more experience equals more safety. But has anyone given thought to what this may do to the supply and demand equation for pilots? Either way, the discussion so far ignores one key point: the supply of student pilots is small and the current structure we use to produce future airline pilots is tenuous.

Yes, I am saying our aviation training structure is unstable.

Unintended Consequences

The FAA may or may not be able to find a way to mitigate the 1,500 rule. Meanwhile, flight schools and airlines are spinning in uncertainty. And there are other complications ... .

Our current path to the cockpit is based on a hodge-podge of training programs and trainer competencies. Training can come from a variety of un-coordinated sources ranging from the independent instructor, to a local FBO, to an academy-style program, to a full-fledged Collegiate or University aviation degree granting program. Some of these are very, very good. Others, well ... not so much. And the route chosen by any individual student often comes without any mentorship or guidance. On its face, the process presents an inefficient, costly and unreliable route to an airline cockpit, business jet cockpit, or any type of professional flying.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that training has been largely neglected by the aviation industry itself. That's a shame. In a recent conversation with a publisher of a professional-aviation focused magazine, I asked, "Why don't you cover flight training?"  His response, "flight training isn't a part of business aviation." That scared me a bit. If flight training and recurrent training aren't within that publisher's concerns, is there anyone who cares?

Our industry leaders emphasize safety, but paradoxically don't put much emphasis on training. Why? Because traditionally, there has been an over-abundance of talented pilots ready and willing to pay any price and sacrifice for a decade to land a right-seat flying job. But the supply of ex-military pilots trained by uncle Sam (at a cost of several million dollars, each) may be drying up. And the civilian pipeline doesn't look much better.

The Pitch

Consider, again, the aviation industry's implied challenge for today's young, prospective pilots: We want you to compete for a low paying right seat at a regional airline after you spend four years and $250,000 in college generating loans you'll be obligated to repay for roughly the next 20 years. There is no training standard to will ensure your success. It may take you two to four more years after college to build flight time as an instructor on your way to the Congressionally mandated 1,500 hours. Those jobs don't pay well and there's no guarantee you'll get one. If you do, at some point after that, you might land that dream job. Interested?

Airlines and corporate flight departments apparently think they will find a talent pool of qualified heavy-iron pilots somewhere in our low-cost, grass-roots, local aviation training environment. That pool is generally made up of part time instructors and high time airframes that are largely taken for granted and poorly funded. And, as costs go up, that pool may dry up and disappear. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let's be honest with ourselves as an industry. We need to make flight training more efficienct, more consistent, and more predicable. We need to develop a long term, strategic approach to training that establishes an economically viable pipeline. There actually are a few exemplary models of highly integrated programs -- we need to learn from them. We need to combine them and build a new model. We need to work from a business perspective. We need to build a system for the future that will train pilots safely and in a way that mirrors the operational experience they'll face when flying revenue trips. The new system should incorporate simulator training at every stage, and it should look very different from what we have done in the past. We're going to need to think differently.

We are going to have to think strategically in cooperation with partners like Boeing, Airbus, and Bombardier. We'll need to include the airlines and corporate flight departments and the aviation alphabet associations. Flight schools and universities -- even the military -- should be sought for their input experience and expertise. But this shouldn't be a one way street. Logic would suggest that these partners should want to talk with flight instructors, too, since they are the ones doing the training.

Forget about tweaking and changing the current system. That will take too long and there are too many people who will want to "do it the way we have always done it." That just won't work. We need a major overhaul. It is time to sit down with all players in the system, think about our end goal, and then build the process that makes it happen.

Reality Check

Pilots don't just appear at an airline's door, they are built. We need an integrated system where aviation training providers work closely with the entities that hire pilots. We need to work together to build a process that is safe and comprehensive. Companies that hire pilots are going to have to work closely with the aviation training community, and support those efforts. Without that, we simply may not have qualified pilots to fill the seats of their aircraft in the future.