Guest Blog: Fixing the Pilot Shortage

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The question of a pilot shortage continues to draw comments from all segments of the aviation industry, showing that interests instead of fact may be what’s generating press and clouding real analysis.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) contends that there is no pilot shortage, but a pilot pay shortage. If you think this is a factual representation, it is worth remembering that it’s ALPA’s job to represent pilot interests and to push for an increase in pay. If I was doing the job there, I would say the same thing. But that doesn’t mean the statement wouldn’t be biased, serving the interests of a specific constituency. I also can’t say I disagree that at some levels, pilots to need to get paid better. (Listen to a recent discussion with ALPA representatives here.)

In direct contradiction are statements by the Regional Airline Association (RAA) representatives indicating that their members are experiencing shortages of pilots to hire. I can’t tell you RAA is entirely without a vested interest either. The relationships between regional airlines and the major airlines with whom they do work can be complex and confusing. What I can tell you, however, is that solutions to the ATP pilot needs for all airlines are starting to develop since the final rules went into place on August 1, 2014. The question is are the solutions going to be enough to keep the flow of pilots to the airlines at sufficient levels.

Just a few days ago, the FAA released its 2014 Knowledge Test data sets, giving the numbers of each type of test that was given through the last year. The ATP knowledge test is mandatory and a pilot must complete it prior to becoming certificated for flying for any airline in the U.S. Looking backward, we saw the following numbers of ATP Airplane Knowledge Tests administered by year:  4214 in 2009, 5617 in 2010, 6922 in 2011, 8192 in 2011, 8535 in 2013 and a staggering 27,254 in 2014.

The high number in 2014 is an anomaly and is the result of many pilots getting it done before the rules change. In fact, it was completely expected and almost all of those tests were completed prior to the August effective date of the new rules. Since then, a mere 179 ATP Multi-Engine Knowledge Tests have been administered, with 120 taken in 2015. While we can’t count on them all to end up as airline pilots, it does represent a pool of pilots who at least have the knowledge test completed and won’t need to complete the new ATP Certification Training Program requirement now in place.

While this pool of pilots exits, can the industry respond to put in place sufficient training capacity to build a new flow of pilots back up to the typical 5000 to 8000 pilots a year that we historically saw completing tests? I don’t know if we are there yet, but some companies are starting to get creative (or desperate) with solutions.

A few companies have stepped up to provide ATP CTP training courses. Right now, six are FAA-approved to provide the course that allows pilots to take the ATP Multi-Engine Knowledge Test, a pre-requisite for an ATP practical test. Here’s the list (PDF).

The fact that there are only six providers is the reason that fewer than 200 people have been able to take ATP tests since the new requirements. But more providers are coming online slowly. This is one solution to the pilot shortage.

As providers of ATP CTP courses become FAA approved, not only is throughput of pilots through the training increased, but competition will drive the price down. Sporty’s is probably the lowest cost at the moment at an advertised $4500 and they recently announced expansion of their capacity. I remember sitting in numerous meetings as the industry debated and discussed the proposed rules a few years ago and estimates of course costs above $30,000 were not uncommon. The market is responding to the training needs and competition has driven these wild estimates down to real numbers.

Airlines and training providers have become aggressive at recruiting. A few years ago, airlines had the pick of pilots. They didn’t need to offer signing bonuses, training at their cost, or any other incentives to get pilots to work for them. In fact, pilots almost had to beg for jobs. This isn’t the case anymore. The changes in pilot training requirements and the pilot pool have forced training providers and airlines to become competitive.

ATP, one of the largest providers of flight training in the U.S., recently announced a partnership with Mesa Airlines offering tuition reimbursement for pilots who work for and train with ATP and sign a commitment to fly for Mesa Airlines when they meet hiring minimums. Effectively, this is an example of an airline paying for pilots’ training in exchange for a commitment to fly for them when their training is completed and they meet hiring minimums. While this is the first example I have come across of this, I have no doubt that ATP will expand this program with other airlines and that other providers will seek similar agreements with airlines.

Envoy has put together a pipeline program that represents partnerships with multiple collegiate aviation programs to attract pilots. Including $10,000 signing bonuses with a two-year contract commitment, they are using this to attempt to attract pilots from collegiate aviation programs as a solution to their pilot shortage concerns.

Endeavor Air seems to be the biggest bidder so far.  Endeavor is offering pilots up to $80,000 in retention payments through 2018. For new-hire pilots who elect to fly with Endeavor, they may earn up to $20,000 each year in annual retention payments through 2018 along with their standard compensation package.

I have no doubt that this is an attempt to work around and bring first officer pay up without having to work under the collective bargaining agreements that bind pay scales that the airlines have negotiated with their unions.

In another example, GoJet Airlines has a call out on the front page of their website indicating that they are offering an $8000 signing bonus with no training contract for pilots. This training program offers pilots the training for and completion of an ATP CTP course provided by GoJet along with their aircraft type/ATP checkride as a part of the training, all at the expense of GoJet. This is a big gamble. GoJet is not only forking out a nice bonus for pilots who complete training, but the fact that they are not requiring a training contract is a risk. GoJet is betting that the pilots they train won’t just go through training, get a type rating/ATP certificate, then leave for another job somewhere else.

Even the U.S. Air Force is noting that it expects shortages of fighter pilots. In a recent article, the service indicated that one of the factors in the shortfall of pilots they expect is the fact that airlines will hire approximately 20,000 pilots over the next 10 years. The Air Force isn’t above attraction and retention efforts either. The service offers Aviator Retention Pay payouts for eligible pilots who agree to serve for nine more years, at a rate of up to $225,000. Fighter pilots, other valuable pilots and combat systems officers who sign up for five more years can also get a $125,000 bonus.

There are other wilder solutions to pilot shortage questions. Some have discussed non-U.S. pilots flying U.S. routes. I doubt this would ever be allowed. But perhaps an enterprising airline that had a base in Canada or Mexico could run some of our border routes with a base outside the U.S. and fly connections between points such as New York and Los Angeles with a connection in somewhere like Winnipeg instead of Denver. I know it may sound like that would never happen now, but is it so far-fetched? How about hiring part-time pilots who are ATPs but may not want to fly full time for an airline? I think if an airline came to me with that offer, I personally would probably say yes.

As regional airlines face pilot staffing challenges, some have had to constrict routes. I could even see a point where their services become available at a premium and the major airlines end up needing to bid against each other for regional airline services. With over 50 percent of flights in the U. S. being completed by regional airlines, their services are vital to feed the majors. If the regionals don’t bring the passengers, the majors won’t have full seats.

It is unlikely that any major stoppage of flying will result from the shrinking pilot pool, but there are definitely growing pains. Airlines and training providers are working hard to start creating the solutions to this shortage today so it doesn’t stop our industry.

We will need more creative programs. We need more providers of ATP CTP courses to get our flow to the point where we are providing enough pilots to replenish the pool when our glut of pilots from last year’s anomalous ATP Knowledge Test takers has all been hired. And we need to continually monitor and promote how we attract new pilots to the career path.

While some still disagree that a shortage exists, others are recognizing that does and working on solutions. It is going to cause hiccups, struggles and changes in our pilot sourcing matrix. But the industry is starting to develop solutions even as you read this post. Will it be enough?

Jason Blair is an active FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and CFI who consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for general aviation companies.

Comments (15)

I am not a member of ALPA but I am an active pilot for a PT 135 operator. There is no such thing as a pilot shortage in this country, never has been, and not likely will ever be one in my lifetime. If FO pay was more reasonable, the regionals would not have such an alleged "difficult" time getting pilots. The major airlines have already stated that they are not having any problems finding pilots. Those regionals who are offering to pay for applicants training, then requiring an employment contract in exchange are missing the point. Why hasn't anything been said about all those pilots who were furloughed in the past and chose not to return to aviation? The situation with the new ATP requirements may make it more difficult for pilot candidates to get that ATP, the fact that the regionals are dragging their feet doing anything about it just shows that the regionals don't want to spend any more money on training/or FO salaries. Pilots are finally wising up and seeing that the big payoff on a career in airline flying is no longer there. Where I see the new ATP requirements being a real obstacle is for those wanting to go the PT 135 route. My company is still able to get pilots to fly the Citations we have, but I do wonder how long that will last, once those who leave the regional world looking for better salaries runs out.

Posted by: matthew wagner | May 19, 2015 8:42 PM    Report this comment

Short pilots can fly just as well or even better than tall pilots, so please quit picking on them :-)

Posted by: A Richie | May 19, 2015 10:07 PM    Report this comment

There is a pilot shortage ... for the moment. I'm certain there exists a spreadsheet somewhere that contains the correct data for forecasting the cockpit employment levels in the long-term, but for now I'll surmise that absent of some global conflict, "disruptive innovation" (the effect that a new thought, product or service imparts upon an existing market and value network, thereby displacing an earlier technology), or general "paradigm shift", that the business of training and hiring will expand in the near-term.

Evidence abounds that the business of physically moving humans for the purpose of conducting profitable business is constricting, dying, or already dead as a competitive enterprise model. The speediest, most fuel efficient aircraft does not keep up with the economics of tele-presence. The influx of all that new internet and wireless technology just *has* to have an effect on the (now ancient) concept of physically moving people. Why do it, when moving electrons does an equal or better job?

However, I believe the problem of cockpit staffing is greater than a simple ability to fill rosters with warm bodies. Piloting as a profession is coming under increased scrutiny -- and not just by the regulators. A "risk/reward" assessment is being made by potentials that are asking "would my time, money and effort be better invested elsewhere?" The same cognitive skillset and eye-hand coordination that piloting demands is likewise sought after by other high salaried industries.

It's high-time airline companies get off their "high-horse" and realize they are in competition for highly qualified candidates, just like any other high-tech, high salaried industry.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | May 20, 2015 1:18 AM    Report this comment

Autonomous aircraft will solve the pilot shortage problem. Any 20-year-old who's planning a career as an airline pilot is making the same mistake that thousands of smart kids did when they trained to become keypunch operators just before the dawn of the PC era.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 20, 2015 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Regional airline executives want to have the 1500/ATP rule rescinded so that they can continue to hire cheap, young, doe-eyed commercial pilots at rock bottom wages. Period. It has nothing to do with increased safety, or alleged bad habits developed in "unstructured training" environments leading up to a pilot's 1500 hours, or any other misdirecting excuse offered by regional airline executives or their mouthpiece - The Regional Airline Association, ("RAA").

But here's where the whole thing falls apart when and if the 1500 hour rule is rescinded: If the rule is rescinded and lowed to say 250 hours, (as it was prior to August 1, 2013), nearly every pilot currently working as a CFI will apply to, and be hired by a regional airline. This will quickly lead to a severe shortage of CFI's, which in-turn will lead to a severe shortage of new private pilots, who will then not transition or train to become instrument rated pilots, who will not transition or train to become multi-engine rated pilots, who will not transition or train to become Licensed Commercial Pilots, who will not then transition or train to become CFI's!

Lowering the 121 First Officer experience requirements may initially add candidates to the hiring pool, but this thing has reach critical mass! And those airline executives who whine the most about the pilot shortage are the very same people who have created it! You've made your bed. Now lye in it.

Posted by: Bob Vaughn | May 20, 2015 10:07 AM    Report this comment

Regional airline executives want to have the 1500/ATP rule rescinded so that they can continue to hire cheap, young, doe-eyed commercial pilots at rock bottom wages. Period. It has nothing to do with increased safety, or alleged bad habits developed in "unstructured training" environments leading up to a pilot's 1500 hours, or any other misdirecting excuse offered by regional airline executives or their mouthpiece - The Regional Airline Association, ("RAA").

But here's where the whole thing falls apart when and if the 1500 hour rule is rescinded: If the rule is rescinded and lowed to say 250 hours, (as it was prior to August 1, 2013), nearly every pilot currently working as a CFI will apply to, and be hired by a regional airline. This will quickly lead to a severe shortage of CFI's, which in-turn will lead to a severe shortage of new private pilots, who will then not transition or train to become instrument rated pilots, who will not transition or train to become multi-engine rated pilots, who will not transition or train to become Licensed Commercial Pilots, who will not then transition or train to become CFI's!

Lowering the 121 First Officer experience requirements may initially add candidates to the hiring pool, but this thing has reach critical mass! And those airline executives who whine the most about the pilot shortage are the very same people who have created it! You've made your bed. Now lye in it.

Posted by: Bob Vaughn | May 20, 2015 10:08 AM    Report this comment

Simple supply and demand: You put more qualified people in the right seat (ATPs) and raise the barriers to entry and you get fewer people for the same pay.

The shortage isn't really a shortage, just a shortage of people willing to work for yesterday's prices.

I also wonder what impact this will have on the regionals' ability to compete with their own mainline carriers since the crew qualifications will be much more similar.

Posted by: Jonathan Cullifer | May 20, 2015 11:31 AM    Report this comment

Bob: There is not now, nor will there ever be, a shortage of people who hold a CFI certificate. If the doe-eyed stop teaching en masse, the aggregate quality of instruction simply will improve. Same as it ever was.

By witness of the popularity of the ab initio training paradigm, the airlines have demonstrated that they assign little to no value to the 1,250 (or 1,290) hours typically logged in light aircraft, after obtaining a commercial certificate, and before obtaining an ATP. Only the U.S. Congress seems to think that requiring those hours is a safety-of-flight issue - the airlines haven't bought that argument.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 20, 2015 1:26 PM    Report this comment

The word is already out, "airline pilot " is not a great gig and the young people of today are taking a look at this career path and saying "No Thanks, I will spend the $ 100,000 and 4 years at University on a more promising career path". This is why enrollment at all the airline Puppy Mills is tanking. But this state of affairs is completely a result of the fixation on cost cutting, exec bonus driven hubris of the airline bean counters.

The good news is the well run regional airlines that have operationally focused stable management that understand why a contented pilot group is good for business, will get all the new hires and the crap airlines with lousy management will fail. It sure is great to see capitalism working !

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | May 20, 2015 8:45 PM    Report this comment

As a "young person" (mid-20's), I believe it's absolutely a pilot pay-shortage. Aviation is my passion as well as that of many of my co-workers. But I'll take my $80k/year engineering job before submitting to the years (or decades) of abuse and low pay that would be working as an airline pilot.

I hold a commercial cert with a measly few hundred hours. Sure, maybe one day I'll have the resume to apply for an airline position, but by that point why would I? Why become a pilot with my years of expertise in the aerospace industry if I still have to start where a 20 year old would after he walks out of a pilot mill and spends a couple years as a CFI?

I agree with the above poster that airline pilot is a dying profession. Autonomous flight will kill the issue as it reaches critical mass. The smart ones of the younger generation realize this.

Posted by: Jack H | May 21, 2015 7:45 AM    Report this comment

Lots of good comments, lots of points I've been saying for many years. What we need to do is count how many U.S. citizens are in flight schools, and decide then if we are facing a crisis. Most (90%+) students in all the big schools are foreign students, with obligations overseas when they graduate. They are counted as U.S. residents by the FAA, and get FAA ratings, so the picture is unrealistically rosy. In reality, there are very few pilots being produced for the U.S. airline industry tomorrow.

Raising pay and conditions won't fix this soon enough to avoid a serious problem, it takes a decade from the time you convince a young person to become a pilot, to the time they fly a revenue airline flight. And by then, automation will certainly have reduced the need for pilots.

Non-U.S. pilots are kind of a funny solution. There aren't any countries teaming with unemployed pilots, yearning to be free. Most foreign countries have been battling the pilot shortage for many years now. They pay a lot more than U.S. airlines, and their pilots complain about foreign pilots coming from the U.S. and Europe to take their jobs.

Posted by: Sherman Kensinga | May 21, 2015 8:59 AM    Report this comment

I'm just a plain ole private pilot, have never had any interest in flying for hire. But it's been painfully obvious forever that regional airlines have survived mainly by deciding to not pay their pilots a living wage that reflects their training, skills, and investments in their career. Low pay reduces the applicant pool, duh! But they were able to sustain their slave wages by the enthusiasm of large numbers of wannabe airline pilot candidates who were willing to invest and then sacrifice long enough to get a seat on one of the majors.

I don't know exactly what the current RA payscale is, but I have read numerous reports over the years that RAs are hiring newby first officers for barely above burger flipper pay. Most are forced to commute long distance to their airline hubs, room with up to a dozen or more fellow FOs in crappy crash pads located in the seedy parts of town, literally sharing beds and bunks (we used to call it "hot racking" in the submarine service), and working long hours, all to get and keep a job that most will never graduate from to the majors.

At least, that is the story that's oft told of what's wrong with America's airline pilot development system, and which has been cited in NTSB reports a cause of pilot fatigue. Pilot fatigue was cited as a key factor in the accident that resulted the ridiculous 1,500 hour minimum time requirement for ATPs, despite the fact that both pilots on the flight deck of that doomed Colgan Flight 3407 aircraft had well over the 1,500-hour minimum (thank you, Congress, for another ridiculous knee jerk law ... we need many more such laws, NOT!).

The free market will work as it usually does, absent gross government interference (such as the post-Colgan ATP minimum time rule). The RAs will have to pay more to get more, and better, pilots. If not, they'll have only themselves to blame. If ticket prices must then be raised to reflect the true cost of hiring quality pilots, then demand for customer seats at the regionals will likely go down and the pilot shortage will eventually disappear. The 1,500 hour rule will continue to depress the supply of pilots, until either the pipeline of would-be pilots finally logs their required time in light aircraft, or until a sufficient number of ATP candidates give up and decide to do something else for a living.There will be some hunting around on both the supply side and on the demand side until it all settles out.

The less intervention by outsiders, whether the FAA, or Congress, or by any arm of the government, the better off we'll all be.

Posted by: Duane Truitt | May 21, 2015 4:05 PM    Report this comment

The airlines might not care about prop plane flight experience, but when planes carrying dozens of passengers are falling from the sky because the "pilot" pulled instead of pushed something needs fixing. Propose a better fix if you want, but it's really too late.

Only one airline in this country seems to have a working business model. Until someone figures out why that is, I don't care to hear the griping.

One thing is for sure. The seniority systems are part of the problem. Certainly experience can make someone more valuable, but the combined effects of those Union systems are part of the problem.

Posted by: Eric Warren | May 21, 2015 5:12 PM    Report this comment

Jason, good follow up from your October 2014 take on the "pilot shortage" controversy and on the latest ATP testing regulations. The "passion" will continue to produce new pilots but proper remuneration is primary to keep the young in the ranks. The domestic ATP population is aging and pilots and support personnel are exiting at what appears to be a faster rate than the flow of replacements. Pay scales equal to that of the FAA air traffic controllers would fix some of the financial disincentives now in question. But, the new and expensive regulations will lean the flow. I agree, the U.S. "pilot shortage" is a growing dilemma.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 22, 2015 5:26 AM    Report this comment

The only pilot shortage that exists is that of pilots requiring foot extensions to reach the rudder pedals. Robots mow your lawn, clean your house, we have autonomous cars and drones, why not have robots fly airliners? The shiny jet syndrome (SJS) keeps the puppy mills full of (foreign) students who all look at fairly well paid and rewarding careers, instead of spending 100K in order to work for wages you could not offer a janitor in average community colleges without getting laughed at.

Spending the equivalent of money on education will yield much better lifetime earnings, unlikely to be affected by quacks who wish to measure your neck-size and unlikely to be affected by silly seniority rules which take some of the most experience pilots back to square one. Over here we call airline pilots glorified bus drivers, except they do make some mula and have a significantly increased QOL self-perception in comparison and contrast to their U.S. colleagues.

What the 1500 hour rule effectively causes is the increased turn over time and heavy competition for people who wish to instruct, thereby keeping people who never wanted to and probably never should have instructed, to pile up, plugging the market.

The problem I see with pilots pulling when they should push may stem from the sterility and lack of creativity used in these "well structured" environments. People never rise to the occasion turning into hero's - instead they always perform to their level of training and act within their given and habituated environment.

Posted by: Jason Baker | May 24, 2015 5:53 AM    Report this comment

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