Pilots shortage grounds planes, dampens business opportunities

Credit: Cameron Braun

Credit: Cameron Braun

At secure locations outside Dayton, PSA Airlines has more than 25 planes grounded because the Dayton-based airline lacks the pilots or crew to fly them.

Asked if he could fly those planes if he had the personnel, PSA President Dion Flannery said: “100%.”

“In 31 years, I’ve never seen a revenue environment domestically in the United States as buoyant as it is today,” Flannery said in an interview. “This is beyond post-Covid recovery. This is just really strong demand for travel services and travel experience.”

“The demand is there,” said Dayton Aviation Director Gil Turner. He said most planes flying in and out of Dayton are 80% full.

‘Communities have a right-now problem’

PSA Airlines, the only airline based in Ohio, is not alone. The shortage is felt industry-wide.

Globally, 34,000 pilots will be needed by 2025, according to American consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

“Eventually, the impact of furloughs, retirements and defections will create very real challenges for even some of the biggest carriers,” Wyman says on its web site.

“Communities have a right-now problem where they are losing air service at crisis levels,” said Faye Malarkey Black, chief executive of the Regional Airline Association (RAA), which represents 18 regional airlines serving mid-sized or smaller airports and communities.

According to the RAA, 32 U.S. cities have lost all commercial air service since 2013. Another 42 airports have seen a 75% reduction in air service since 2013 and 77 airports have experienced a reduction of 50% or more.

The 25-plus airplanes that PSA is routinely not flying — kept either in short-term shortage or serving as operating spares — is a lot, Flannery said. Those planes represent lease and maintenance costs.

“We have 130 airplanes in our fleet,” he said. “We would prefer to be flying the vast majority of those.”

Beyond PSA’s situation, though, there is a question of maintaining a distinct community resource.

“Communities are the ones getting swindled,” Flannery said.

Union: Labor shortage misleading

ALPA, the Air Line Pilots Association union, is a contrary voice on this issue, maintaining that there is no shortage. A union spokeswoman referred to a union website on the issue.

The union in August pointed to 8,823 commercial pilots that had been newly certified in the previous year.

The issue, as ALPA frames it, is that the seven largest passenger carriers have more pilots and fly less than they did before the pandemic, “offering further evidence that pilot availability is strong and the debate about supply is really an attempt by some airlines to divert attention away from their operational mismanagement.”

“Once again, the data demonstrates that the United States is producing a record number of pilots,” ALPA President Joe DePete said in a statement. “However, there are still some in the industry that continue to mislead the public about pilot supply to cover up bad business decisions and their attempts to negatively impact aviation safety.”

ALPA would not make DePete or another ALPA representative available for an interview to understand what business decisions they are referring to.

Flannery said pilot pay isn’t an issue. When he arrived in Dayton in February 2014, a first officer in the first year of his or her career made $22,000 annually. Today, that salary is closer to $130,000.

“We have paid more. And it’s not working,” Flannery said.

Key business resource

Cities like Dayton have worked hard to attract and protect scheduled commercial service. Service to business travelers and vacationers is at risk, Flannery and others say.

Last month, the city of Dayton and the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce joined the Rally for Air Service coalition, which describes itself as a national group of communities and organizations concerned about a worsening national shortage of pilots.

“We would love to be flying more, largely to reconstruct the network that we in the American Group have been building for decades here, serving those communities that had at one time really good levels of service,” Flannery said. (PSA is a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines Group.)

If regional airlines aren’t flying to and from an airport, then bigger airlines almost certainly will not. There are many places where a 120- to 150-seat mainline aircraft won’t serve a community as efficiently as a 65-seat regional jet, he said.

Flannery cites the example of a hypothetical a mid-sized business. Eyeing budget constraints, a business will want to fly employees somewhere and be back in one day if possible, without paying for a hotel.

More than a decade ago, former NCR CEO Bill Nuti cited what he saw as a relative lack of flights in and out of Dayton International Airport as one reason to move his company headquarters from Dayton to the Atlanta area.

“Maybe it doesn’t mean you move your headquarters,” Flannery said. “Maybe it means you miss out on landing a client, maybe you miss out on a business opportunity. Those things add up over time.”

Flights into and out of Dayton are important to CareSource, said Jenny Michael, senior vice president of advocacy for the Dayton-based medical insurance company.

“We think about customers flying in,” she said. “We think about flying out to the various states to which CareSource has expanded across the nation. We certainly have a need to get into those markets where we’re doing business.”

That’s one reason Michael welcomed the recent news that Avelo Airlines will be the first new airline Dayton International has added since 2016.

The number of Dayton International flights has not hindered what has been “exponential growth” for her company in recent years, Michael added.

Possible solutions: Age, costs and access

Industry advocates say these problems can be solved. Essentially, they want to get a handle on the costs and quality of flight training, lowering the cost of entry to an aviation career.

They also want to make it easier for good, older pilots to keep flying, when possible.

Pilots are required to retire at age 65. Some industry-watchers argue that the limit should be waived or extended.

To the criticism that altering the mandatory retirement age would serve only as a temporary band-aid, Malarkey Black said: “We really need a band-aid right now.”

“The underlying issue of the pilots shortage is going to continue for several decades,” she said. But addressing training issues and student loan coverage will take time to bring in new pilots, she said.

Training is also inaccessible in a number of ways, Malarkey Black and others maintain.

New pilots must obtain a private pilot’s license as a prerequisite to a career in commercial aviation.

That process can cost about $80,000 to $90,000. But aviation is not seen as “loan-worthy,” the RAA and others say. Tuition by private flight schools that aren’t associated with a university are ineligible for student loans from most private lenders.

Student pilots can get loans, but the caps on undergraduate lending “fall far below the real cost” of a pilot’s education, Malarkey Black said.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires 1,500 hours of flight experience for a student to become an “airline transport pilot,” a pilot deemed qualified to fly commercially. In September, the FAA rejected a proposal to halve the number of hours required.

‘Adds up very, very quickly’

When Tom Casey, a flight instructor at the Lewis Jackson Regional Airport in Greene County, started flying, he could rent a small, single-engine training plane for $25 an hour. Today, that cost is closer to $120 to $140 hourly.

That’s just for the plane. An instructor’s time is another $40 an hour, he said.

“It adds up very, very quickly,” Casey said.

“For someone like me, a kid who grew up in a solid working-class family in Pittsburgh, not too far from Dayton, I would not have been able to become a pilot,” Malarkey Black said.

Flannery backs a bill from Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the American Aviator Act. The act would authorize grant funding through the FAA to support training for veterans who are not already military pilots.

Advocates also want a new look at how pilots are trained.

Flannery says there is data that shows that the mere accumulation of hours in small, single-engine aircraft does not necessarily make a better pilot, and does not prepare a student for flying a turbine engine aircraft that can go faster than 500 miles per hour in crowded air space.

Flannery believes students can gain experience on quality, high-level simulators, repeating maneuvers until they have them down cold.

“Compare the value of that to, ‘I flew another two hours over a cornfield in Indiana,’” Flannery said.

Malarkey Black wants to allow airlines to start their own training programs or partner with existing training programs. “We’re talking about simulator time in a highly sophisticated full-motion simulator that completely replicates the feeling and experience of flight,” she said.

Flannery and Malarkey Black agree that quality simulator experience can be more valuable than time spent towing banners or spraying crops

“This is how airlines train,” Malarkey Black added. “Every upgrade that a pilot does, every re-qualification, they’re all doing that in simulators. This is a standard.”

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