Guest Blog: Fixing the Pilot Shortage


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.