Reports over the last few months have painted an alarming picture over the state of skilled and ultimately qualified talent in the aviation industry, in particular that of pilots.
In short, the US aviation industry is currently experiencing a severe shortage of qualified pilots. Why? A combination of high training costs, poor salaries for entry-level pilots and regulatory changes enforced in 2010 by the US Congress. All of these have exacerbated the shortage of skills over the past five years.
This has in fact resulted in cases of smaller regional airlines actually being forced to cancel flights and ground much of their fleet, despite growing consumer demand for internal flights. This is set to have devastating effects on balance sheets of regional airlines, with reports suggesting that one of the largest US regional airlines - Republic Airways, is expecting to see a $22 million reduction in cash balances following their decision to ground many of their jets.
Prior to Congress’ ruling in 2010, pilots were only required to amass 250 hours of flight time before they could hold a commercial pilot certificate. Now, first officer’s are required to have at least 1,500 flight hours under their belt before they can hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. These rules were brought into effect following the tragic 2009 crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY, resulting in 50 deaths. Following a lengthy investigation the accident was later blamed on pilot error sparking the aforementioned regulatory shake up.
On average a qualified pilot will likely have spent in excess of $100,000 on training before they can expect to attain their ‘wings’ and more importantly their first job - leaving many pilots in considerable debt before they even receive their first pay packet. This situation is worsened by the fact that the lowest salaries for qualified pilots have fallen to a shocking low, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that some regional airlines are paying as little as $15,000 dollars a year - or in hourly terms, roughly the federal minimum wage. At the opposite end of the spectrum, pilots working at the larger carriers can expect to earn in the region of $60,000 with figures rising to between $100,000-$200,000 for experienced senior pilots.
With regional airlines fulfilling much of the larger carriers flights, it has become imperative that they can reduce costs to be able to capitalize on the large carrier’s capacity issues and handle their commuter flights. With costs in mind, regional airlines aren’t in a position to increase pilot salaries to anywhere near the level that their major airline counterparts can offer with the fear of losing these lucrative arrangements.
With this in mind, many would-be aviators are (understandably) failing to see the economic value of spending both many years amassing 1,500 hours of flying experience hours and simultaneously lumbering themselves with hundreds of thousands of dollars of training debt, to acquire a role where they may be lucky to command an annual salary of just $20,000! The numbers just don’t add up unfortunately. This type of situation has even led to a number of regional airlines resorting to actually removing seats from their aircraft to allow them to fly under different FAA regulations where by a pilot is only required to have 250 hours of flying hours under their belt. However, this is clearly not a viable, long-term answer to the underlying issue.
Evidently the industry is in somewhat of a quandary, and whilst the lucky few in the upper echelons of the aviation industry may be enjoying sizable wealth and perks these appear to be few and far between. Despite demand for air travel continuing to soar sky high, until we see either a relaxation on the legislation regarding flying hours or a monumental shakeup in regional piloting salaries, we can expect to see pilot numbers continuing to dwindle.
Flight cancelled? They probably can’t find a pilot...
Article by Rhyan Thwaites
Image Credit: Flickr User - Liz West