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Transportation Technology

Airlines Face Acute Pilot Shortage 421

Hugh Pickens writes "The WSJ reports that U.S. airlines are facing their most serious pilot shortage since the 1960s. Federal mandates are taking effect that will require all newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of prior flight experience — six times the current minimum. This raises the cost and time to train new fliers in an era when pay cuts and more-demanding schedules already have made the profession less attractive. Meanwhile, thousands of senior pilots at major airlines soon will start hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65. 'We are about four years from a solution, but we are only about six months away from a problem,' says Bob Reding, recently retired executive vice president of operations at AMR Corp. A study by the University of North Dakota's aviation department indicates major airlines will need to hire 60,000 pilots by 2025 to replace departures and cover expansion over the next eight years. Meanwhile, only 36,000 pilots have passed the Air Transport Pilot exam in the past eight years, which all pilots would have to pass under the Congressionally imposed rules, and there are limits to the ability of airlines, especially the regional carriers, to attract more pilots by raising wages. While the industry's health has improved in recent years, many carriers still operate on thin profit margins, with the airlines sandwiched between rising costs for fuel and unsteady demand from price-sensitive consumers. 'It certainly will result in challenges to maintain quality,' says John Marshall, an independent aviation-safety consultant who spent 26 years in the Air Force before overseeing Delta's safety. 'Regional carriers will be creative and have to take shortcuts' to fill their cockpits."
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Airlines Face Acute Pilot Shortage

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  • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:20AM (#41977413)

    It didn't seem like we were having any real problems due to inexperienced pilots before. If this is really a problem, let's just roll this back.

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:21AM (#41977421)

    what about adding a apprenticeship system into prior flight experience??

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:30AM (#41977475)

    The gov has been having knee jerk reactions to all manner of issues. I just wish they would review their own issues in the same manner.

  • by myowntrueself ( 607117 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:31AM (#41977481)

    "with the airlines sandwiched between rising costs for fuel and unsteady demand from price-sensitive consumers"

    I think consumers are sensitive to more than just price. The humiliating experience that flying has become in the USA could contribute.

  • by jhoegl ( 638955 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:48AM (#41977559)
    Well, if airlines are in such dire need, they should raise the pay.
    Also, skimming through the article I was looking for when this law was passed (2010) and goes into effect July 2013.
    Three years to deal with the issue, they had plenty of time.
  • by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <michael@michaelmalak.com> on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:52AM (#41977575) Homepage

    The shortage of doctors in the U.S. is due to the AMA cartel's control over university accreditation and corresponding rent-seeking state laws requiring accreditation. The result is speed-exams when you go visit a doctor (or maybe not see the doctor at all, but rather a "nurse practitioner").

    Similarly, with legislatively reduced supply of pilots, look for cattle class throughout, with even tighter row spacing. Better keep those 747's tuned up, airlines, because you're gonna need to convert them to full economy class the way Japan uses all-economy class 747's between Osaka and Tokyo.

    Don't worry, even though there won't be a business class to upgrade to with your frequent flyer miles, you'll still be able to spend your miles on magazine subscriptions.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:55AM (#41977589)

    Let me start off by saying that I am a commercial pilot and a flight instructor. I know what I'm talking about.

    There are some real problems due to inexperienced pilots.
    Look up the Colgan Air crash from 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colgan_Air_Flight_3407
    Undertraining is also a significant issue.
    Look up the Air France crash, also from 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_France_Flight_447

    People are afraid of getting into airplanes because they perceive that they lack any control of the situation and they subconsciously think that the pilots are as poorly equipped to deal with flying as the passengers themselves are. In order to maintain the perception of safe flight the FAA has made rules that only allow for extremely safe flights for the paying population. Commercial aviation is amazingly safe. The FAA is going to do whatever they can to ensure that it remains safe, even when it results in higher prices for tickets. Higher minimum flight time is one of these requirements and they are hoping that this will result in safer flight.
    I might not like every rule the FAA makes but they are doing their best to keep the flying public safe and they have done a admirable job of that so far.

    Let's talk prices. Let's say that your average pilot makes $100,000 a year. They don't, but it's an easy number to work with. Check this out for additional detail: http://blogs.wsj.com/middleseat/2009/06/16/pilot-pay-want-to-know-how-much-your-captain-earns/
    Let's say that after these changes the average pay bumps up to $200,000 a year. What will that cost you for your ticket?
    Let's pick some numbers out of the air:
    100 passengers for each plane on average.
    200 flights a year per pilot.
    2 pilots per flight.
    That works out to a total pilot cost per ticket of $20 and a cost increase per ticket of $10. How much do you suppose your taxi driver made getting you to the airport? I bet it was more than $10.

    Let's address the pilot shortage issue. It's a total load of garbage. There are hundreds of resumes for every pilot job out there, and for pitiful salaries. The pilots are out there but they can't afford to feed themselves let alone have a family and support them on a starting pilot's pay. Pilot training up to the level required for even the most basic job (instructor) is going to cost $50,000 or more. You can't pay that back on a $20,000 a year salary. Pilots do it because they love flying. As the new rules go into place, salaries will go up to compensate. But it won't be that much. Maybe you'll see a 'pilot pay' line on your next ticket for $20 or $40. And next time you are scared and drunk because you are clueless and getting ready to take off you can rest easy. The FAA in it's bumbling heavyhanded manner is doing it's best to keep you safe and they have been amazingly successful. More successful than any other industry in the world.

  • Re:Why... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jeff4747 ( 256583 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:58AM (#41977605)

    Why am I not surprised that the libertarian with the malware download link completely glossed over the low pay and bad schedule?

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @02:10AM (#41977673)
    There is a problem with high speed rail. It requires good public transportation at the end nodes. It works in Europe because they have good local public transportation systems. It will not work in the US because we do not.

    High speed rail is step 2, not step 1.
    Step 1 is good local public transportation.
  • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @02:17AM (#41977727) Journal

    Similarly, with legislatively reduced supply of pilots, look for cattle class throughout, with even tighter row spacing. Better keep those 747's tuned up, airlines, because you're gonna need to convert them to full economy class the way Japan uses all-economy class 747's between Osaka and Tokyo.

    Consumers are getting exactly the level of service they are willing to pay for.
    It's why airlines have had to soak the passengers in other ways, including baggage fees and overpriced onboard snacks/meals.

    Maybe we need to go back to the golden days of regulated airfares and routes.

  • by cwebster ( 100824 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @02:21AM (#41977743)

    250 hours is the minimum for a commercial rating, the theoretical minimum for a job as a first officer at an airline. The practical minimum is dictated by the supply and demand in the job market and I have seen it vary between 1500 and 250 hours over the last decade and across different airlines. The 1500 hour minimum is a good thing. There are still jobs out there for the 250 hour people (part 135 freight) and this gives experience that they need to get on their way to an airline cockpit.

    Disclaimer: I flew for a regional airline for 4 years, benefited from the 250 hr baseline (I had 600 hours when hired, 3100 when I left) and I completely support getting more experienced people into those airplanes.

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @02:56AM (#41977891)

    It requires no more or less good public transportation at the endpoints than air travel does.

    High speed rail is not merely an alternative to air travel. It is also an alternative to driving.

  • low pay (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Iamthecheese ( 1264298 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @03:20AM (#41977993)
    They didn't offer sufficient pay and now they don't have enough pilots. Seems pretty simple to me.
  • by TiggertheMad ( 556308 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @03:30AM (#41978031) Homepage Journal
    Well, they better start paying pilots a lot more money then. I don't see what the problem is. If they have to start charging more for tickets to cover the overhead, then they have to charge more for tickets. It is not like it is a cost that will affect one airline but not another.
  • Funny math (Score:3, Insightful)

    by michelcolman ( 1208008 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @05:01AM (#41978305)

    They need 60000 pilots by 2025 (i.e. in the next 13 years), and only 36000 have passed the ATPL exam in the past eight years...

    60000 divided by 13, times 8, makes... 36923

    Slightly less dramatic than you thought, no?

  • by hattig ( 47930 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @05:40AM (#41978427) Journal

    Seems to me that the issue is low pay and poor working conditions.

    You would really have to love flying to get into it as a job with the rewards you've outlined above.

    Maybe if they had raised the pay to be commensurate with the responsibility of the role, the unsociable hours and so on, and paid them when they turned up at the airport rather than when they entered the cabin door, there would be more people becoming pilots.

  • by lurker1997 ( 2005954 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @07:07AM (#41978721)

    I'm sorry, but I have zero sympathy for airlines and how they treat customers like trash, as well as their employees.

    This is easy to say, but not many people are going to pay 5X the price or more to fly with an airline that pays their employees extra and is nice to their customers. Unfortunately, consumers are getting what they want from the air travel industry, a race to the bottom.

  • by gutnor ( 872759 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @07:22AM (#41978781)

    I'm not familiar with the Airline unions, but I have experience with other unions in other sectors. Pay based on seniority is often indeed required by the union. However, the fact that experience does not carry over, is not required by the union, it is the price they had to pay. Seniority can be carried over during contract negotiation.

    When you change job, there is negociation for the salary either directly or using seniority as a proxy. You get experienced pilot working for 20K for the same reason you get PHD flipping burger at McDonald, nothing to do with the union stance on seniority.

  • by LordNimon ( 85072 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @08:28AM (#41979037)

    Why would it cost 5X extra? Doubling the salary of pilot should only make it at most 10% extra. Most people wouldn't even notice.

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @09:11AM (#41979277) Journal

    I wondered, back in the 80s when I was in school, why pilots made 100k a year and bus drivers made 15k a year. Looks like pay for driving a vehicle with 60 passengers has equalized. [flame suit on]

  • by oskarfasth ( 187750 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @09:39AM (#41979513) Journal

    It seems many people are arguing "but that's not going to work, the airlines are already on so very thin profit margins".

    Ticket prices are going to rise. A number of airlines are going to file for bankruptcy. Well bohoo. That's just the way it should be - market economy at work.

  • by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 ) <gameboyrmhNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @10:42AM (#41980031) Journal

    Yep I might be a pilot right now if not for the bullshit low pay.

    The airline industry is now in a similar position to the IT industry: They say they can't find people, but what they mean is that they can't find highly educated people who are willing to work for peanuts - and therefore they deserve zero sympathy. Fuck 'em.

  • by GreenTom ( 1352587 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @12:04PM (#41980655)
    Strengthening your point, I think labor is a distant third. The #2 cost is the airplane itself. A new 747 costs $352 million. A major airline should be able to borrow money at 5-6%, so the mortgage on the plane will cost about $20 million/year. The aircraft is probably good for 30 years, so that's about $12 million/year in depreciation. It's costing the airline something like $32 million a year just to own the airplane.

    They should get around 3000 flight hours out of it per year (10-12 hrs/day x 6 days/week x 48 weeks/year), so add $10k or so per flight hour to your estimates. This also makes it obvious why fast turnaround is so important--Southwest pretty much revolutionized the industry by being able to flip a plane in 15-30 minutes. That extra hour of flight time each day is huge when you're looking at tens of thousands of dollars in fixed costs.

    Next time you board an aircraft, take a look to the left. If the cockpit door is open, there's probably a small plaque there telling you who the bank is that actually owns the plane.
  • by IndustrialComplex ( 975015 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:04PM (#41981397)

    You ignore risk. I'm a former Flight Test Engineer. I work with pilots, the best man at my wedding is a professional pilot, and I'll tell you about some aspects which aren't covered in comparisons of start to finish salaries.

    Rate of increase: This is a guess, but I'm pretty sure that a MD reaches a 100k salary long before a pilot reaches a 100k salary. Sure, ending at the same salary sounds comparable, but reaching 100k at age 40 is a hell of a lot better than reaching 100k at age 50.

    Job Security Risks. A pilot is subjected to a very high risk that they can lose their career over things which are no fault of their own.

    First, I'm going to exclude 'rockstar' positions. Neurosurgeon, Fighter Pilots, and personal pilots for billionaires are fringe cases.

    A medical doctor may invest $100k in education and start at a $30k/yr job, but that is pretty much guaranteed to lead to a well paying job later on as long as they do their job. As a doctor, if you follow the rules, you aren't likely to lose your license. If your health deteriorates, it will be a while before you can't function as a doctor, and afterward you can teach/consult/etc. If you lose your hand because you were an idiot and reached into a lawnmower, a general practitioner won't be prevented from doing their job.

    Now, lets look at what can happen to a pilot:

    Medical Issues: Vision loss? Well, your job is toast. You can keep using glasses for a while, but it doesn't take much beyond simple deterioration to lose your medical cert. Survive cancer? A coworker had melanoma. He had to go for special (and more frequent) medical evaluations as a result. Even though it was surgically removed. The increased scrutiny was permanent. As far as I know, cancer is one of those things that takes a bit longer than an 8 hour flight to progress from 'I feel fine' to 'Drops dead'. Heart conditions sure, melanoma? really? Speaking of heart conditions, hope you don't ever get one. Or lose a hand, or an eye, or have a seizure, or any limb, or ...

    Old Age: Maybe you love your job, maybe you just need the money. But you are not allowed to work as long as a doctor can work if they choose to do so. So you miss out on many years of that 'high' salary.

    Mistakes: A doctor makes a mistake, well, the results can be pretty varied, but consider a family practictioner. He isn't making emergency decisions, maybe he recommends a less effective statin drug than he could. Maybe he misses something critical like a heart murmer. Well, in a couple years, if it isn't caught between then, a single person may experience heart failure (or not). Surgeons are a special case, but it is very rare that a surgeon screws up and kills himself, the patient, and everyone in the room.

    So a pilot screws up: Well, lets ignore the obvious killing himself and 100-400 other people. We KNOW that's a serious risk. But what happens if the pilot screws up, but ends up fixing the situation anyway? He is at much greater risk of losing his license than a MD is at losing their license. First, it's EASY to identify when pilots make mistakes. Their actions are defined by checklists, routines, and obvious and instantaneous results. MDs? Well, maybe he missed the heart murmer, or maybe it just wasn't there when he checked. Was that statin less effective? Yeah... maybe, well it's hard to tell.

    I'm not trying to list out everything here, but there are some serious drawbacks to being a pilot which can instantly kill your career. And unfortunately, a pilot's career without a license is not worth much.

  • by strikethree ( 811449 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:57PM (#41982127) Journal

    WTF makes you think consumers demanded it? Sure, consumers always look for the lowest price but they always look for the lowest price on gas and home mortgages and we can see where that went. Nowhere.

    Did airlines lower their prices and see a sudden influx of new customers? Did they raise their prices and see a sudden migration of old customers? Seriously, *I* do not demand that my airline pilot slave for nothing but I see no way of affecting this from my point of view. Stop blaming the customer. It is too easy.

  • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @01:59PM (#41982159) Homepage Journal

    The gov has been having knee jerk reactions to all manner of issues.

    And well, ya'll should just get used to it, and expect even more federal regulation, requirements and mandates for your business, and even private lives.

    Ya'll just voted in the administration that just LOVES to regulate everything about your lives and livelihoods...

    Does anyone really see this as a surprise?

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.