For months, Dayton-based PSA Airlines has offered increasingly aggressive hiring bonuses for new, qualified pilots.
The airline did not make its president, Dion Flannery, available for an interview, but in an emailed statement he acknowledged what he called “the short supply of qualified pilots in the marketplace.”
“Given the competitive nature of the recruitment, PSA doesn’t make public comment regarding our specific state, but it is fair to say that the bonuses are proving helpful in getting more interest and driving more applications to our airline,” the statement said.
Experts give several reasons for the shortage of pilots: relatively low starting pay, high costs for those wishing to become certified pilots, fewer pilots getting trained by the military, an “abnormally large retirement bubble” borne of strong airline hiring in the 1980s, as well as the recent economic recovery and growth of airlines around the world.
“It’s really the perfect storm,” said Clay Pittman, chair of the Aviation Technology Department at Sinclair Community College.
‘Stretched to the max’
One way airlines have dealt with the shortage is having pilots fly more hours, said Dan Elwell, an aviation industry consultant based in northern Virginia.
Instead of 75 hours of flight time per month, he said, personnel-strapped airlines have put pilots in the air for 85 or 90 hours, a total that approaches the legal limit of 100 hours.
But the increased flight time hasn’t been popular with the pilots, whose unions argue there are safety concerns.
The central argument in the recent Teamsters actions against both ABX Air and Atlas Air Worldwide, which also flies for Amazon, is how often pilots are expected to fly. The pilots say they are made to fly more — and in less time — than is healthy for them, their passengers or their airlines.
“Atlas is growing so short of pilots right now, that they are cutting corners and they are taking liberties with our contract,” said Atlas Air Worldwide pilot Robert Kirchner, who has flown for 40 years and is executive council chairman of the Wilmington-based Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224.
“Our pilots are getting stretched to the max where increasing numbers are calling in fatigued and sick because of the way they’re being worked,” he said. “It’s stressing the operation to a level we have not seen.”
Kirchner said he is typically “on the hook” for mandated flights for “17 straight days.” As captain of a 747, he is expected to fly all over the world.
“A typical week for us is really typical over two weeks,” he said.
Pilots on international flights normally get a day or two to recover from the effects of traversing several time zones, Kirchner said.
“Now, they’re stringing these flights so close together, that even when you have time to sleep, you can’t,” he said. “The body can’t adapt.”
In an email, a spokeswoman for Atlas said: “From our perspective, there is a strong labor pool and we are continuing to hire and train pilots. We believe we are a carrier of choice and offer an attractive option for our crew members, particularly with the prospects for additional business and professional growth that we provide.”
Joe Hete, chief executive of Air Transport Services Group, which owns both ABX Air and Air Transport International, also said his company has had no trouble finding pilots.
“The reality is, we’ve hired well over 100 pilots between the two air carriers since the first of the year and have had no problem finding qualified candidates,” Hete said.
If there isn’t a shortage now, there soon will be, according to numerous studies and experts who told this newspaper the problem can’t be ignored.
In 1980, more than 610,000 people in the United States had private, commercial or airline transport pilot certificates, Elwell said. But by 2014, that number had shrunk to just over 432,000, he said, which mirrors a similar drop in the pool of student and private pilots.
A January 2016 analysis by Boeing and the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman found airlines in the United States will need 95,000 pilots from 2015 to 2034. The expected supply is about 64,000, the report said.
A recent study by the North Dakota Aviation Department came to a similar conclusion, saying the pilot deficit will reach 15,000 by the end of the next decade.
“Unless something is done to reverse the trend … we’re going to be feeling that for years,” Elwell said.
Some argue that the small, regional airlines that are getting pinched the hardest would get more applicants if they offered higher starting pay.
That’s what PSA is doing. Pilots for regional airlines typically start out making about $20,000 to $40,000 a year, depending on how many hours they fly.
But last month PSA, a regional passenger airline and American Airlines subsidiary, began offering “up to $60,000” for new-hire pilots with a rating that allows them to fly CRJ-type aircraft.
Elwell, however, said there is nothing — including higher salaries — that will provide an immediate fix to the problem.
Added ABX Air’s Ziebarth: “They (airlines) have put themselves in a terrible bind here.”
Ziebarth, a member of the Wilmington-based Teamsters local, is a senior pilot for the company, and says he’s called “numerous times” to fly overtime.
Ziebarth said the company should have been more on top of the labor shortage because the void can’t be filled overnight. It takes four months to get new pilots fully trained on ABX procedures, he said.
“They got behind the power curve,” he said.
‘A huge investment’
Sinclair’s Pittman said higher standards mandated by the federal government have contributed to the problem.
The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension Act of 2010 requires first officers or co-pilots to hold an Airline Transport Pilot rating, which boosted the number of flying hours required for those positions from 250 to 1,500.
“That radically raised the bar for the requirements to be an airline pilot,” Pittman said. “That is a big, steep hill.”
The climb also requires a substantial financial investment. To obtain 250 hours of flight training, plus an associate’s degree with five FAA certificates — all the certificates up to an Airline Transport Pilot’s certificate — requires about $60,000 in Sinclair’s program, Pittman said.
That’s simply to reach the point where students might be hired by a non-airline aviation company, he said.
“It takes years to get the extra 1,250 hours that they don’t have, three or four years minimum, and that’s flying really hard,” he said.
Students are paying for the cost of a training aircraft and the cost of the flight instructor: “Every time a pilot gets behind the controls, they’re paying for that,” said Shannon Coblentz, director of Dayton’s Air Camp program for students.
Richard Reynolds, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and co-founder of Air Camp, said the costs “can be a big burden for a young person.”
“These are big debts that they’re going to have to pay off,” he said.
Searching for solutions
New pilots often end up doing what Pittman called “niche” jobs: flying crop-dusters or planes with streaming banners that soar above beaches in the summer.
They’re all working to accrue the required number of flying hours that will allow them to step into an airline job, Pittman said.
Saying the 2010 law moved the bar too high, he added, “I think Congress needs to re-evaluate the requirement of this act.”
Coblentz, whose math-oriented program is directed at middle school students with an interest in aviation and aeronautics, said the military once provided a more direct line for trained pilots to walk into airline jobs.
But the military has had to deal with its own pilot shortage. In December 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters in Washington that the service had a shortage of 700 fighter pilots and was looking at Congress to provide the money for retention bonuses that might help alleviate the problem.
Coblentz said military pilots have other opportunities, including flying drones.
“That is pulling from that traditional pilot program,” she said.
Mandatory requirements also shrink the pool. Pilots are often “forced” to leave the cockpit at age 65, no matter how skillful they still may be, Coblentz said.
“It’s well under what the average person might consider an age that people start to lose their faculties,” she said.
By the numbers
61o,000: People in U.S. with private, commercial or airline transport pilot certificates in 1980.
432,000: People in U.S. with those certificates in 2014.
15,000: Projected pilot shortage by 2026.
$20,000 to $40,000: Starting pay for pilots at small, regional airlines, depending on how many hours they fly.
$60,000: Cost to obtain 250 hours of flight training, plus an associate’s degree with five FAA certificates, through Sinclair Community College’s pilot program. Students would have to complete an additional 1,250 hours of flight training to meet the minimum federal requirement to be a first officer or co-pilot, training that often takes years.