U.S. airlines are looking for a few good pilots. Actually, a whole lot of good pilots
With recruits cool to low starting pay, airlines could face shortages Costly flight training “is a major impediment to building the pool”
After coping with terrorism, bankruptcies, and consolidation, the largest U.S. airlines are facing a new problem: They may start running out of pilots in three years. That looming deficit will soar to 15,000 by 2026, according to a study this year by the University of North Dakota’s Aviation Department, as more captains reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 and fewer young people choose commercial aviation as a profession.
The difficulty of attracting enough pilots is already the bane of the often low-paying regional carriers that ferry passengers from smaller airports to hubs operated by American, Delta, and other major airlines. That’s worrisome for the big carriers, because they typically use the smaller operators as a pipeline for hiring. “The biggest problem is a general lack of interest in folks pursuing this as a career anymore,” says Greg Muccio, a senior manager at Southwest Airlines. “That’s what puts us in the most jeopardy.”
Airlines are responding by changing hiring requirements, boosting signing bonuses at regional carriers they own, and partnering with flight schools and university aviation programs. Muccio spends some of his time trying to interest college, high school, and even elementary students in an aviation career, while he’s working to extend the largest expansion of pilot hiring in Southwest’s history.
The top three reasons would-be pilots are changing their career plans are the cost of flight training and certification, low pay at regional carriers, and a 2013 regulatory change that mandated a sixfold increase in flight hours required to become a first officer, according to a study released last year by the University of North Dakota and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Until recently, few pilots were willing to recommend the career, even to their own children, says Louis Smith, president of FAPA.aero, a career and financial planning firm for professional pilots. “That mood is changing,” he says, as larger airlines have become profitable and increased their pace of hiring to support growth. “Still, the cost of learning to fly and the risk and impact of failure is a major impediment to building the pool of pilots.”
Four-year flight-training costs for a commercial aviation aerospace major total about $64,500 at the University of North Dakota, home to the largest public aviation program in the U.S. That excludes tuition and room and board, which can add as much as an additional $105,400 for an out-of-state student.
Major U.S. airlines will hire as many as 5,000 pilots this year, mainly to replace retirees but also to support expansion, Smith says. Most will come from regional carriers, military retirees, and flight schools. More than 30,000 pilots, or half the current total of 60,222 at 10 large U.S. airlines, United Parcel Service, and FedEx, will reach age 65 by 2026, according to data compiled by Kit Darby, president of KitDarby.com Aviation Consulting.
Consolidation may be triggered at regional carriers by staffing competition from better-paying larger airlines filling their own pilot needs, says Elizabeth Bjerke, chair of the University of North Dakota Aviation Department. Republic Airways, which runs commuter flights for American, United, and Delta, filed for bankruptcy in February, in part because of a pilot shortage. “The future is a little scary,” says John Hornibrook, chief pilot for Alaska Airlines, the nation’s No. 6 carrier. “The pool is just not as big as it used to be.”
To help recruiting, Southwest has dropped a requirement that pilot applicants already hold a certificate to fly Boeing 737s, which can cost as much as $14,000 to earn. It’s also cut in half the time between a pilot interview and a job offer, Muccio says. American, which is adding about 650 pilots this year and 750 in 2017, gets about half of its cockpit staff via “flow-through” agreements that allow aviators at its three wholly owned regional carriers to move into jobs at American. Delta has a similar deal with its Endeavor Air unit, while Alaska Airlines guarantees interviews to pilots from its sister company, Horizon Air. “Every major we’ve talked to, they are concerned beyond the next three to four years,” says Jim Higgins, the principal investigator on this year’s University of North Dakota study.
At American’s Envoy Air commuter unit, the promise of a seamless move to a major carrier is a big draw, says Jon Reibach, director of Envoy’s pilot recruiting. “Once a young pilot interviews with us, that’s the last airline interview they’ll ever have to do,” he says.
In June, American’s regional carriers—Envoy, Piedmont, and
PSA— upped their signing bonus to $15,000. Delta’s Endeavor pays a retention bonus of up to $23,000 and has the highest first-year salary at $50,000, according to Delta spokesman Michael Thomas.
First-year pay at commuter carriers averages $35,227. A first officer, or copilot, on the smallest aircraft at large airlines earns an average $55,054 his first year, according to Darby. That can increase to more than $120,000 in his fifth year, flying the largest plane. A captain at top seniority flying the biggest planes averages $208,828.
Some carriers are trying nontraditional hiring approaches. In March,
JetBlue Airways initiated Gateway Select, in which recruits with no flying experience, after passing a series of screenings, can pay $125,000 to enter an intense four-year program to become pilots. Successful graduates get a job offer. The model, designed to recruit from a broader range of candidates, is similar to those used in Europe and Asia.
At United, a new program designed “to counter the potential shortage of qualified pilots” involves two regional carriers and a flight-training school, according to an internal memo from the airline. The plan provides a chance to move to the larger carrier, which will hire 650 pilots this year and as many as 900 in 2017.
The bottom line Airlines in the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 15,000 pilots by 2026. That’s causing airlines to try new ways to recruit staff.