No Pilots, Flights Cancelled


I’m wondering if we’re seeing a canary in the mineshaft moment here.

This week, with the news that Seattle-based Horizon Air is cancelling more than 6 percent of its flights due to lack of pilots, the supposed true-or-not-true pilot shortage seems to be coming to a head. Actually, I think the canary has been dead so long that its desiccated bones have long since been trampled into dust by the boots of a remorseless market.

Low pay and work conditions may be part of the problem, but I think the industry struggles with the same reality that general aviation does: Piloting has just lost its allure. What used to be a torrent of people burning to fly is now just a trickle. It’s a demographic thing. To be sure, there will always be people passionate about flying, both to populate airline cockpits and to buy and fly GA airplanes. It’s just that there are enough fewer of them of make GA growth and airline pilot hiring a challenge.

The Seattle Times reports that for the month of August, it canceled 6.2 percent of its flights, automatically rebooking the passengers on other flights or on its parent, Alaska Air. The company’s chief executive, Dave Campbell, told employees that the airline’s sharp growth and the shortage of qualified pilots “created a perfect storm.” Perhaps. But it’s hard to see how this isn’t a storm of the industry’s own making.

Although starting salaries at the regionals have inched up recently, an ALPA sampling of starting salaries for first officers revealed ranges between $20,183 and $29,484. The average is about $23,000. Coincidentally, that’s what I was offered for an entry-level magazine job in 1981. Equivalent buying power today: $8500. That’s not even survival wages. Desperate for pilots, some airlines are offering signing bonuses of up to $20,000. While advancement can be rapid when labor is in short supply, a starting pilot can expect several years of barely subsistence pay. Who can blame would-be younger pilots for taking a pass?

ALPA has long maintained that the pilot shortage is really a pay and benefits shortage. As recently as last year, it said there were 141,542 ATP-rated pilots under the age of 65 who held a first-class medical. Another 100,000 held commercial and instrument ratings and could have obtained ATPs. Complicating this is the rule Congress passed requiring 1500 hours of total time for the ATP certificate. When that rule was passed, many in the industry predicted it would chill pilot hiring and I suspect Horizon Air’s shortfall is proving that claim to be well founded.

But I think the issue is deeper than just pay. At a conference on pilot hiring ALPA sponsored three years ago, Nicole Barrette, a training and licensing specialist with the International Civil Aviation Organization, said members of so-called Gen Z (born after 1995) are more cognizant of environmental issues and sensitive to return on investment for educational costs. At the same conference, an Embry-Riddle executive said a large number of students never start flight training and many drop out because of the cost.

They understand that they’ll be spending a mountain of money for ratings that won’t be useful even when they graduate because they’ll lack the 1500 hours for the ATP. And even then, a starting job at under $30,000 won’t make the slightest dent in student loans. While these students will catch up on pay over the course of a piloting career, perhaps they’re not quite so passionate about flying to endure that rather than picking another career entirely.

Embry-Riddle says more students are opting for the aeronautical engineering track, which has much higher starting salaries. Career earnings catch up for the pilots, but it takes 27 years to equal and exceed earnings. That assumes pay rates remain where they are, which isn’t assured.

That timeline strikes me as significant not just because a would-be airline pilot might not wish to wait that long, but also because my view is that autonomous aircraft operation will begin to impact the industry in unpredictable ways by then. That’s getting into the 2040 to 2045 time frame. Gonna be a different world.

For the shorter term, the piloting jobs will be there for people who want them and many will. But unless something is done with salaries, I’m guessing what happened to Horizon will be chronic. Aggravating this, according to Forbes, is the perverse relationship between the major carriers and regionals that caps what the regionals earn from tickets sold on their behalf by the majors. The contracts often require any surplus margin to go to the majors, forcing the regionals to cut costs however they can, and downward pressure on salaries is usually the result. One company I read about offered its applicants a $500 a month housing stipend during training, but it had to be refunded if the deal didn’t work out. Who would want such a relationship with a potential employer who’s already paying beat-down wages?

Horizon’s experience may be just a short-term blip, but it’s still a business failure when you can’t service customer demand because of a lack of labor. It shows poor planning and perhaps a lack of understanding of market dynamics. Is it the leading edge of chronic trend? Who knows? We’ll see how many more such stories we see. This isn’t the first.

Equally unknown is whether raising starting salaries would help. My guess is it wouldn’t help much because even doubling them doesn’t make the job sound much more attractive. Long term, I think two things should happen. One is to get rid of the inane 1500-hour ATP rule, which appears to be having real negative impact on the industry with no meaningful improvement in system safety.

And second, military and even GA channels are already drying up, so in conjunction with revising that 1500-hour rule, airlines could help themselves by more aggressive ab initio programs. As we’ve reported, Boeing has already started such a program, but the 1500-hour requirement stunts its effectiveness. JetBlue also has a small program of its own. Graduates still have to figure out ways to build the required hours. Ab initio is more common for European and Asian airlines.

In this sense, I think experience is overrated. As those who argued against the 1500-hour rule said, rightly I think, hours in a logbook are not necessarily any indication of a pilot’s skill. It’s just a measure of having sat in a seat for that many hours. Doesn’t it make just as much sense to train a pilot for the job he or she has to do right from the ground up, rather than relying on peripheral activities such as instructing or banner towing that might or might not inform the process of flying passengers in jet aircraft? In aviation in general but especially in the U.S., we’re unable to disabuse ourselves of the idea that a captain in the seat for, say, 5000 hours, is automatically a steely-eyed aviator. But anyone in the business who’s honest will tell you that some are, and some definitely aren’t.