Is There a Pilot Shortage or Not?

The following is reprinted with permission from Holly Hegeman’s PlaneBusiness Banter, November 21, 2012, Vol. 16, Issue 43:

Over the last several weeks, the issue of whether the airline industry faces a severe pilot shortage has generated a great deal of discussion in various media outlets. One recent article in the Wall Street Journal in particular generated a high number of email comments to us here at PlaneBusiness. That article also generated a lot of “me too” stories at other media outlets.

So is there a “catastrophic” pilot shortage about to descend upon the industry?

According to Kit Darby, of Kit Darby Aviation Consultants, more than half of current U.S. airline pilots are over 50. Darby’s firm calculates that all U.S. airlines, including cargo, charter and regional carriers, together employ nearly 96,000 pilots, and will need to find more than 65,000 over the next eight years.

Dave Barger, CEO of JetBlue Airways, was also quoted in the WSJ article, as having said in a recent speech that the industry is “facing an exodus of talent in the next few years” and could “wake up one day and find we have no one to operate or maintain those planes.”

Dan Garton, CEO of American Eagle, said the impact of the FAA’s proposed new first-officer rule “is going to become much more visible when regionals have to decrease their flying” for lack of pilots, and that the airline may have to eliminate service to some smaller cities.

Okay. Is it just me or does this sound like the old tried and true “fear”-based strategy?

Yes, there is another side to this debate, which in the last two weeks has been put forth by such folks as Lee Moak, President of the Air Line Pilots Association and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, former US Airways Captain and now aviation consultant to CBS News.

That argument more or less tracks this line of reasoning: all of this talk of a pilot “shortage” is being overblown, and in, fact, is merely an attempt by the airline industry to pressure the FAA to back down on already congressionally mandated tougher minimum pilot training and experience standards.

In an interview on CBS, Sullenberger said that the latest round of media hype is nothing more than a “scare tactic.” Sullenberger alleged that airline executives are crying wolf, with the aim to pressure the FAA into reducing the first-officer requirements in the final version of the new rule.

“This [the change in mandatory experience requirements] is not a surprise to anyone,” he said. “You know, we’ve known since December 2007 what the mandatory age for retirement for pilots was going to be. We’ve known these rules were coming for several years. In fact, in congressional testimony this year regional airline association officials, in response to a congressional question, indicated that they fully expected by August of 2012, which has passed, that their member airlines would be completely compliant with the airline transport pilot license requirement in the new rule. As a matter of fact, they further say that out of their 18,000 regional pilots, only 100 might not be and that’s because they haven’t yet reached the age of 23, which is one of the requirements.”

Last week, ALPA President Lee Moak wrote in a letter to the editor to the WSJ,

“Next time I suggest the Wall Street Journal do a better job of reporting. “The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l does not agree with your analysis in “Airlines Face Acute Shortage of Pilots” [November 12, 2012]. The article failed to consider a number of variables, including the cadre of highly qualified pilots who are currently furloughed or displaced from North American carriers and those flying overseas in order to make a livable wage.

“A significant number of currently furloughed or displaced American and Canadian pilots have had no choice but to accept pilot jobs in other parts of the world in order to make a living. In addition, many qualified pilots have chosen to fly for overseas airlines because of the instability in the North American aviation industry. These pilots would prefer to fly for North American carriers, if they were able to support themselves and their families as well as feel confident of a long-term career.”

He then added, “It’s also important to consider another key issue. Emirates—as well as other Middle Eastern and Asian carriers flush with cash, incentives, and favorable government aviation and tax policies—attracts highly qualified airline pilots because they offer compensation commensurate with the pilots’ training and skill; some North American carriers do not . . . so you see, the solution to increasing the quantity of airline pilots in North America lies in attracting and retaining the most qualified pilots.”

I’m going with the Lee Moak/Sullenberger view. The change in mandated training minimums for pilots is necessary, has been in the works for years, and is not unreasonable. The airline industry will survive just fine. There are, and will be, enough pilots.

Next time I suggest the Wall Street Journal do a better job of reporting.