Airline industry dogged by shortage of veteran pilots

| Friday, Dec. 25, 2015, 11:18 p.m.

A dwindling number of experienced pilots in the United States has airlines canceling routes to some cities and reducing the frequency of flights to others, and some airports closing.

How to address the problem is something the aviation industry has yet to agree upon. Airlines, pilots and other players have divergent views on the cause of the dearth of pilots, and how to keep pace with the global demand for flights.

There will be a shortage of about 35,000 pilots over the next decade without government or market intervention, according to a widely cited University of North Dakota study from 2013. The study cited multiple reasons, from fewer interested students to growing demand for flights, plus a wave of retirements as pilots hit mandatory retirement at age 65.

Some groups, like the Regional Airline Association and the American Association of Airport Executives, cite as a major issue a 2013 federal law that increased the required number of flight training hours from 250 to 1,500 to obtain the highest level of pilot certification. As part of the change, co-pilots also would be required to obtain the certificate, once reserved for captains.

“What we need is more checks and balances in the training system ... the flight training needs to be more structured,” said Jeff Mulder, chairman of the Airport Executives group and airports director for the Tulsa Airport Improvement Trust in Oklahoma. Flight hours can be obtained with fixed-route training or towing banners, Mulder said, not necessarily cockpit training. “Adding all those hours didn't really solve the problem from that standpoint.”

The airport executives wrote to members of Congress in mid-December urging them to consider addressing the pilot shortage during the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

The increased hours were part of a multi-pronged safety effort following the Colgan Air Flight 3047 crash in Buffalo in 2009. Family members of the victims are pushing back hard against efforts by regional airlines to roll the requirement back.

“Public Law 111-216, the Airline Safety Act, has resulted in 2,486 days and counting of no other father having to grieve for his daughter who was lost in a needless and very preventable tragedy due to the glaring safety gaps in some of our nation's regional carriers back in 2009,” Florida resident Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, 30, in the Colgan crash, said in a statement this month.

The Air Line Pilots Association, International, which represents about 52,000 pilots, also doesn't want to see the training hours requirement changed.

“These important pilot training and qualification regulations, which emerged from a joint industry effort led by representatives of the regional airlines, must remain firmly in place to ensure the safety of air transportation in the United States,” Capt. Tim Canoll, association president, said in a statement to the Tribune-Review.

The association contends the more immediate concern is paltry wages and benefits for new pilots. The five lowest-paying carriers have starting salaries of less than $21,000, which prevents young people from investing the money in education to enter the industry.

A 2014 Government Accountability Office report on the pilot shortage came up with varying conclusions, saying its extent depends on wages, demand for flights and the cost of a pilot's education. It also noted the military isn't the source of commercial pilots it once was, reporting that “prior to 2001, some 70 percent of airline pilots hired came from the military, whereas currently they estimated roughly 30 percent come from the military.”

Whatever the reason, about 30 airports in small U.S. markets have lost all service since 2013, from Rhode Island to Wyoming, according to the airport executives group.

The regional airline group says every regional carrier has been affected by the shortage in some way, whether cutting routes or diminishing their frequency. Regional carriers contract with mainline carriers to operate smaller aircraft on shorter flights, and they service about 46 percent of flights in the United States.

A survey of its members in the first eight months of 2015 determined carriers were able to get 52 percent of the 4,256 pilots they hoped to hire.

Trans States, a regional carrier operating American Airlines flights out of Pittsburgh International Airport, cut nonstop flights to Hartford and St. Louis in November.

“We know as a market we are dramatically underserved,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. “We don't want to see a step backward, in terms of the market that gets served out of here.”

She said the industry's awareness of the problem has grown, and carriers and airports are responding. The authority runs the “Ready for Takeoff” outreach program, now in its third year, in an effort to attract students to aviation.

“The individual airlines are starting to pay attention and realize they need to be proactive about this,” Cassotis said. “They are seeing how directly it impacts their ability to provide reliable service.”

JetBlue recently launched an in-house training program for pilots that has drawn criticism for putting pilots into the cockpit with little aviation experience. The regional airlines group has a training program that focuses on building flying skills rather than accumulating hours.

Among the critics of this approach is veteran pilot Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger III, who tweeted earlier this month at the regional airlines group: “Stop trying to roll back requisite 1500 (flight) hrs ... Airline pilots must be fully qualified and experienced.”

Southwest Airlines, one of the largest carriers at Pittsburgh International Airport, has recruiters focus on Women in Aviation and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals to help attract and retain pilots. The airline also works with the military on sharing resources and tries to attract high school and college students with internships and job fair appearances, company spokeswoman Amy Thornton wrote in an email to the Trib.

“We've not seen any shortages in pilot hiring,” she said, “although we have noticed a reduction in the high quality and experienced candidate pilot pool.

“Southwest is keeping in mind that the military is reducing the number of trained pilots, and in the civilian world, the expense of learning to fly continues to climb.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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