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The move to separate the air traffic control function from the FAA is gaining momentum and it now appears that Congress is seriously considering a stand-alone air traffic organization that, by definition, would be independently funded. Although it's a long way from reality, there is clearly widespread support for the idea in general to get the capitally intensive job of rebuilding the country's aviation infrastructure out of the hands of politicians. Congress is now debating the next FAA reauthorization bill after the previous reauthorization languished for years on 90-day extensions because of political issues. Proponents of separating the ATO from the administrative and enforcement functions of the FAA say that modernizing the system requires predictable and sustainable funding over periods of years rather than the hand-to-mouth existence of the agency in the tumultuous Washington environment of recent years. "I honestly think it is triumph of hope over experience to believe that the funding issue is going to change. ... You cannot build what we want to build for this country and retain the leadership opportunities in this critical area of technology of air traffic control with this approach," said former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, who co-authored a report (PDF) advocating the separation of air traffic control from the rest of the FAA. A Senate hearing heard testimony on the topic on Tuesday, and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said fixing the funding is important but the agency has made progress on NextGen and other modernization despite the political impediments.

Huerta told the hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee FAA Reauthorization that fixing the budgeting issue should be top of mind for the government. "But we must all agree on the most important problems reauthorization should fix. In our view those are budget instability and the lack of flexibility to execute our priorities," he said. "These challenges exist for the entire agency – not just for the air traffic control and NextGen organizations, as some have suggested." Huerta told the committee installing and using all the modern gear is only one aspect of building and maintaining a new system and discussions about carving the ATO out of the mother organization should be done in that context. Meanwhile, Rep. John Mica has introduced a bill to turn the ATO into an employee-owned and operated non-profit corporation.

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The HondaJet in Geneva

The HondaJet is making its European debut this week, at the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition, in Geneva. The stop is part of a "world tour" for the twin-engine jet, which is getting close to certification and first deliveries in North Carolina. The tour began in Japan, where more than 10,000 people had a chance to see the jet up close, and after EBACE, the jet will continue on a two-week demo tour with stops in the U.K., Poland and Germany. The EBACE show, Europe's largest business-aviation event, runs from Tuesday to Thursday this week. Cessna, Beechcraft, Daher and Boeing also provided updates on Monday, during a busy pre-show news-conference day.

BBJ split scimitar

Cessna said the final performance specs for its Citation Latitude midsize jet are better than predicted, and added that FAA certification is "imminent." The Latitude will offer a long-range cruise of 2,850 nm, and takeoff distance of 3,580 feet. The jet is on static display at the show. Also on Monday, Beechcraft said all new-production King Air turboprops will soon feature Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics as standard equipment. Daher announced the first delivery in Spain of its TBM 900 single-engine turboprop. Boeing Business Jets said split scimitar winglets now will be standard on all of its jets, and offered as a retrofit for the BBJ fleet. The modified winglets increase range by 2 percent or more. EBACE is hosted at Geneva's Palexpo convention center, with a static display at the adjacent Geneva International Airport.

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You can now place your order for an Aerion supersonic business jet at a price of $120 million, the company announced this week at the European Business Aviation Convention & Expo in Geneva. "This is another step forward for Aerion," said chairman Robert Bass. The company hopes to sign up 50 launch customers who will get special pricing and other benefits. The company, based in Reno, is now working with Airbus to refine the design of the AS2 supersonic bizjet. "We've made substantial progress in defining the AS2 from the inside and the outside," said CEO Doug Nichols. Also at EBACE, Cessna announced on Tuesday it has received EASA certification for its CJ3+ light jet.

The CJ3+ was certified by the FAA in September, and Cessna said it delivered 10 of the single-pilot jets by the end of last year. The CJ3+ seats up to nine people and can fly up to 2,040 nm. Piper also announced the first sale of a Meridian M500 in Europe. The M500, introduced last month, is an upgrade of the Meridian six-seat single-engine turboprop, with an enhanced Garmin G1000 avionics package.

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Gulfstream's all-new wide-cabin G500 business jet has completed its first flight, the company announced on Monday. The airplane launched on Monday morning at 10:39 a.m. from Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, and flew for about two and a quarter hours, with a crew of two pilots and a flight-test engineer. The crew tested all the primary flight-control systems, evaluated handling qualities throughout the flight regime, climbed to 15,000 feet, and performed a simulated approach and go-around. The aircraft flew at a maximum speed of 194 knots. The company said it has also logged 34,000 hours of lab testing for the G500.

Five aircraft will be flown in the G500 test program, including a fully outfitted production aircraft that will allow the company to test all the interior elements and complete integration of the aircraft systems. The finished airplane will be capable of flying up to Mach 0.925 and cover distances up to 5,000 nm. The all-new flight deck will feature Honeywell Primus Epic avionics and active control sidesticks, integrated touchscreen controllers, and a next-generation enhanced vision system. The G500 is expected to be type-certified by the FAA and EASA in 2017, with deliveries to start in 2018. The company is also working on an all-new G600, another wide-cabin design, which hasn't yet flown.

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Carter Aviation Technologies, which has been working for years to develop the technology in its rotorcraft, announced this week the company is now moving out of the flight-test phase and will focus on moving the CarterCopter into production. "The time has come, and some would say overdue, to shift gears and focus on getting the technology into the marketplace," said CEO Jay Carter, in a news release. The company will continue to fly its technology demonstrator at public airshows. Executive Vice President Jon Tatro, who has been with the company since 2013, will be in charge of the production campaign. The aircraft utilizes slow-rotor technology that enables it to "take off like a helicopter, transition to an autogyro, and fly like a fixed-wing aircraft," according to Carter.

Carter told AVweb last year he was working on a design for an unmanned aerial vehicle using the technology he's developed. He also said he'd like to find an experimental kit manufacturer who would license his technology to create a personal-size aircraft. "The secret to our sauce," he said, "is that we've found a way to eliminate the drag from the rotor blade. We can slow it down to 100 rpm, which reduces the drag by 27 times." The company's current prototype is a four-seat aircraft with a 45-foot-diameter rotor and wingspan, with a 350-hp turbocharged Lycoming IO-540 engine. The aircraft is capable of speeds above 200 mph, the company says.

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Producing electrical power from the sun has come a long way, and solar cells are getting remarkably efficient.  But where to put all that power remains the issue for pure electric aircraft.  AVweb's Paul Bertorelli spoke with Rich Kapusta of California-based Alta Devices about the issues and the opportunities.

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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.

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