Since boyhood, Daniel Cifuentes has dreamed of becoming a pilot at a big airline. But now, with two years remaining before he graduates from Utah Valley University with a professional pilot degree, Cifuentes doesn’t believe his dream is possible in the United States.
“Most likely, I will end up flying airplanes either in Mexico or Colombia because [of a new rule] here in the U.S. mandating that pilots have at least 1,500 hours [of flight experience]. It’s very expensive to get 1,500 hours,” Cifuentes, 25, said.
The rule, set to take effect next August, raises minimum flight time requirements sixfold for new-hire airline pilots, from 250 hours of prior experience to 1,500. It was triggered by a law Congress passed two years ago to improve safety after the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air commuter flight that killed 50 people.
The mandate, however, has accelerated debate within the airline industry over whether a pilot shortage is looming in the U.S. and the effect that could have on service, especially to low-profit communities where passenger demand is spotty.
On several levels, it appears that ingredients are combining to create at least the threat of a shortage, if not an actual shortfall. At the same time minimum flight time requirements for inexperienced pilots are rising, thousands of veteran pilots are closing in on mandatory retirement at age 65, which was raised from age 60 in 2007. Simultaneously, revised rules on work schedules and rest periods are forcing commercial carriers to increase their pilot numbers.
Several beleaguered airlines have used bankruptcy to force pay concessions from pilots, while fast-growing carriers in Asia and the Middle East are expanding their fleets and recruiting U.S. pilots with big salaries to fly their new airplanes. Finally, fewer Air Force and Navy pilots are leaving the military — for years, a key source of pilots for the airline industry.
Earlier this year, aircraft maker Boeing said the world’s airlines will need 460,000 more aviators over the next two decades as the global economy expands and carriers take delivery of thousands of new jetliners. Most of the demand for commercial pilots will come from abroad. U.S. and Canadian airlines will need 69,000 pilots, according to Boeing.
“I believe there’s probably a pilot shortage coming up. It was delayed because of the age 65 rule that came in place in 2007,” said Mark Saltzman, one of 600 Delta Air Lines pilots stationed at the carrier’s Salt Lake City International Airport hub.
“The 1,500-hour requirement, that’s a factor,” said Ed Thiel, another Delta pilot. “It takes quite a bit of work experience to get 1,500. If you can’t work for a regional [airline], it’s very difficult to do.”
Representatives for Delta, the predominant airline at Salt Lake City’s airport, aren’t saying much. “We closely monitor our staffing needs,” was all spokeswoman Betsy Talton would say, although an official at one of its regional partners, SkyWest Inc., was more forthcoming. The parent company of SkyWest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines doesn’t anticipate a shortage anytime soon, said SkyWest Chief Financial Officer Mike Kraupp, who made his comment in an email but was not available to elaborate.
Neither does Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. He said any airline short of pilots can draw from a pool of “several thousand” veteran pilots who were laid off in recent years by carriers trying to cut costs. (The U.S. airline industry has lost $53 billion since 1999. Only three years out of the past 10 have been profitable, according to the association.) Many pilots went abroad to get work. Moak thinks most would return to the U.S. if they were summoned back to their jobs.
“Many of our pilots want to be here because their primary job was in the U.S., and they got furloughed and went overseas. They want to be here, first and foremost,” he said.
Less-experienced pilots have been going abroad, too. Many foreign airlines don’t require new hires to have more than a few hundred hours of flight time. They also offer lucrative entry-level pay that Moak said is in line with the costs that many new pilots have racked up to earn their commercial licenses. By contrast, in the U.S. it’s not unheard of for a pilot in training to spend enormous sums on his or her education and training, only to take a job at a regional airline that pays less than $20,000 a year, he said.
“I believe that in the regional jet space, the era of having a pilot who goes to a school and incurs $100,000 worth of debt for student loans and then has to pay for his airline experience [and] his certificates ... and then hires on and gets $18,000 a year in the right seat of that jet, those days are gone,” Moak said.
“Do I believe that [regional] airlines can be profitable and successful paying their employees commensurate with the education, training and experience? The answer to that is absolutely yes, they can,” he said.
At SkyWest Airlines, a first-year copilot flying a 50-seat jet earns about $19,800, according to www.willflyforfood.com, a website that tracks pilot pay. After seven years, pay tops out at $37,800. Pilots who captain SkyWest’s biggest jets earn as much as $102,150.
As for other sources of new pilots, at Utah Valley University, Peter Dittmer, who chairs the School of Aviation Science, hasn’t seen a fall-off in student applications. He says students are banking on a future shortage and are enrolling in order to take advantage of the situation. Many have accelerated their training and flying times, hoping to land an airline job before the 1,500-hour rule goes into effect next summer, he said.
Dittmer doesn’t know what will happen afterward. The rule could extend the time it takes a graduate to find an airline job from a year or less today to as many as three years. That might dissuade would-be pilots from enrolling at UVU, he said.
“We are optimistic the pilot pool will increase. But we don’t know at this point,” Dittmer said.
UVU student Nick Rich is a year away from graduation. He said it’s “disappointing” that the 1,500-hour rule will probably delay his ability to land his first job by at least a year, especially considering that his pilot friends who already work at the airlines have told him a shortage is on the horizon.
“I wish I didn’t have to spend so much extra time. I just wish I could get to the airlines faster,” he said.
What the sides say
A shortage is looming because:
New rules mandate that pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flight experience.
Thousands of veteran pilots are closing in on mandatory retirement at age 65.
Revised rules on work schedules and rest periods are forcing commercial carriers to increase their pilot numbers.
Fast-growing carriers in Asia and the Middle East are expanding their fleets and recruiting U.S. pilots with big salaries to fly their new planes.
Fewer Air Force and Navy pilots are leaving the military — for years, a key source of pilots for the airline industry.
There are plenty of pilots because:
Airlines short of pilots can draw from a pool of “several thousand” veteran pilots who were laid off in recent years by carriers trying to cut costs.
Many pilots went abroad to get work, but would return to the U.S. if they were summoned back to their jobs.