Pilot supply at critical low
A storm is brewing in the cockpit of U.S. airlines: a pilot shortage.
Thousands of pilots are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 65, just as it is becoming harder to be a commercial airline pilot.
New federal pilot-rest rules and tougher qualification standards requiring new pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience — up from 250 — have occurred at the same time that throngs of senior pilots will be retiring.
The mandates were implemented in the past six months, in response to the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, that killed all 49 aboard the plane and one man on the ground.
National Transportation Safety Board hearings focused on whether the plane's two pilots were properly trained and whether factors such as fatigue may have affected their performance.
Although job prospects for commercial pilots are bright, and regional airlines are scooping up newly minted aviators with signing bonuses, fewer young people are choosing aviation careers.
The reason: the training cost and low entry-level pay — $20,000 to $25,000 a year.
New Jersey native Christopher Machado, 20, a junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., has wanted to be a pilot since he was a boy, watching the planes overhead at the Newark, N.J., airport, not far from his home.
Machado said the cost of his education and flight training will be about $250,000 before he can sit in the first officer's seat of a regional airline, where commercial pilots usually start to build experience.
He said he's lucky his parents support his dream and are paying for it. “I know a lot of people who would be pilots, but for the money.”
In 2012, Boeing projected that 498,000 new commercial pilots would be needed in the next two decades.
“There is a pilot shortage. We're just starting to see the effects,” said Capt. James Ray, spokesman for the US Airline Pilots Association.
US Airways and American Airlines, which merged in December, have 14,000 to 15,000 pilots. “We're going to lose almost half to attrition in the next 10 years — about 7,000 retirements,” Ray said.
American announced in September it would recruit 1,500 pilots over the next five years. Delta Air Lines currently is hiring 300 pilots.
The military, traditionally a source of pilots, is keeping its pilots longer with wage increases and bonuses. Foreign airlines are luring well-trained U.S. aviators with hefty salaries.
After the crash near Buffalo, Congress “found that it took very little experience to be in the right seat of one of these regional airlines, so they changed the rules,” Ray said. “They've raised the minimum qualifications — that's a good thing. The bad news: It's not helping these young pilots.”
“A young person has to be far-sighted,” Ray said. “Down the road, this is a lucrative profession. People in the top of this field make $200,000 to $300,000 a year.”
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