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Pilot Shortage May Develop as Job Loses Luster

November 15th 2010

Transportation Topics - commercial pilot wings

When Kevin Sullivan was 10 years old, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.

The wide-eyed third-grader got to sit in the cockpit on his first-ever plane ride and reveled in the chance to rub elbows with the crisp professionals of United Airlines.

“It was a 707—you know, a rickety old airplane,” the 54-year-old Sullivan said with a laugh. “At the time it was state-of-the-art. I got to sit on the observer seat, and I got a chance to talk to the co-pilot and the flight engineer and it was just, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’”

It was 1966 and commercial aviation was near the peak of its golden age. Young passengers were routinely invited into cockpits, and smiling flight attendants handed out hot meals. Those days are long gone, and so too, it would seem, are the wide-eyed third-graders who want nothing more than to defy the laws of gravity and fly big, shiny airplanes.

Being an airline pilot is no longer as glamorous—or as lucrative—as it once was, and as a result fewer people seem to aspire to the gold wings of airline captain. Some worry that a pilot shortage is on the horizon.

“I’ve seen enough (signs) to make me wonder about our future generation of pilots,” said Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Pipeline Troubles

Commercial airline pilots typically earn their wings by attending flight school or joining the military. There are signs of trouble in both pipelines. Robert Rockmaker, president and CEO of the Flight School Association of North America, said the number of flight schools in the U.S. and Canada dropped from about 2,400 to about 1,700 after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“For six to 10 weeks, flight schools were closed across the country,” he said. “And some of these flight schools just didn’t come back. They went away, couldn’t make it.”

The number of students studying to become pilots has been declining for 20 years. According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, there were nearly 129,000 student pilots in the system in 1990. By 2009, the number had plummeted 44 percent to just over 72,000.

The number of new students entering the system also is on the decline. From 2006 to 2008 the FAA issued an average of 63,000 certificates a year to new students. That dropped to 54,876 in 2009, a 13 percent decrease.

While the loss of glamour in the industry may partly explain the thinning numbers of student pilots, the added burden of financing the training is another factor, Rockmaker said. Flight school for commercial airline pilot training can cost as much as $80,000. That often comes on top of loans for college degrees in engineering or other subjects.

Financing pilot training also has gotten more difficult, Rockmaker said. The G.I. Bill no longer pays for stand-alone flight training, and Sallie Mae, which is currently floating about $182 billion in private, educational loans, now only finances tuition for a handful of flight schools because of high default rates.

Rockmaker said the flight school association has been working with Sallie Mae on the funding issue but understands the decision. “Sallie Mae just said: ‘That’s it. We’re not going to continue this. The bleeding is too bad,’” he said. “Ultimately that’s any lender’s concern. ‘Am I going to get paid?’”

Patricia Christel, managing director of corporate communications for Sallie Mae, confirmed there are fewer loans available for flight schools and other career training programs. The loan provider ended up with a number of bad loans after 9/11 when many flight programs shut down, she said in an e-mail.

The traditional route to the large airlines begins at regional carriers, where the average starting salary is $24,000. Depending on interest rates, a loan payment could drain the lion’s share of a young pilot’s monthly paycheck. An $80,000 loan—at 8 percent on a 10-year amortization schedule—requires a $970.62 monthly payment, which would be nearly half the pre-tax monthly salary of a new pilot.

Meanwhile, more pilots are choosing to stay in the military rather than fly in the private sector, where pay and conditions are not what they once were.

According to statistics provided by the U.S. Air Force, the number of active-duty pilots staying in the military has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years. In 2000, there were 4,841 active-duty Air Force pilots ranked from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, and in 2010 there were 5,740—a 19 percent increase. The Air Force also provided attrition rates that show 1,280 pilots left the service in fiscal year 2007, but just 525 left two years later.

The Air Force expects a mere 240 pilots to separate or retire in 2010—81 percent fewer than just three years earlier.

The NTSB’s Hart said he worries about what will happen when commercial airlines no longer have a reliable flow of well-trained military pilots. “We historically enjoyed a wonderful pipeline of military-trained pilots from World War II, then from the Korean War and then the Vietnam War,” he said. “We’re not ever going to see that pipeline again.”

With fewer pilots entering the system, the average age of airline captains has been steadily increasing, according to the FAA. In 1990, the average age was 43.6; in 2009, it was 48.9—up 12 percent.

The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act, signed into law this summer, has added to the worry about a potential pilot shortage. In the wake of a 2009 airline disaster near Buffalo, N.Y., lawmakers revised the minimum requirement for commercial pilot certifications. The legislation raises the experience required to be a commercial airline pilot from 250 hours to 1,500 hours within two years. The increase is expected to particularly affect regional airlines, where most young pilots begin their careers.

Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said setting such a high bar could discourage people from pursuing careers as pilots. “It’s like saying don’t even pick up a basketball unless you can be an NBA All-Star,” Cohen said. “It’s sending a message to young people today who are considering a piloting career—particularly with the cost of flying, the cost of training, and the capital of it—that this is impossible.”

David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association, a trade organization representing major airlines, said the airlines haven’t seen a shortage of pilots and don’t expect to, in part because there’s a large pool of furloughed pilots to draw from. If a pilot shortage does develop, “it would be way down the line,” he said.

Cohen also doubts that a coming pilot shortage would have a big impact on the industry. “We’re confident our members will be able to navigate any perceived or real pilot shortage, just like we have done historically,” he said.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said airlines raised the retirement age three years ago for airline pilots from 60 to 65, which should forestall problems.

“I’ve been hearing about a pilot shortage now for about the last 30 years, and I have yet to see it,” said Sumwalt, who spent 24 years as a commercial airline pilot. “Raising the retirement age to age 65 … will give us some time to allow the pipeline to get propped up again with pilots that want to be flying for a living.”

Despite repeated attempts over the course of several months, representatives of the world’s largest pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, declined interviews.

Less Pay, More Work

Over the past five years, many seasoned pilots have seen their pensions reduced and their pay slashed.

Shortly after Chesley Sullenberger landed a crippled Airbus 320 on the Hudson River in New York in January 2009, he told a House Transportation subcommittee: “My pay has been cut 40 percent; my pension, like most airline pensions, has been terminated and replaced by a (pension) guarantee worth only pennies on the dollar. … While I love my profession, I do not love what has happened to it,” he said. He added that he does not know “a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow their footsteps.”

Many pilots no longer feel they have any job security, said Meryl Getline, a former captain for United Airlines who started flying commercial planes in 1977. “A big thing with pilots, which is true to this day, is that wherever you’re hired, you might as well count on the fact that you’re going to get furloughed at some point,” she said. “I never did at United, but I did absolutely everywhere else.”

And in a seniority-based system, pilots who are forced to move from one airline to another take pay cuts. Highly experienced pilots may get no more than entry-level wages.

Retired pilot Ronald Nielsen of Arizona was in the Air Force in 1976 when he saw an Eastern Airline pilot’s pay stub. “He saw the delight in my eyes, and he said, ‘That’s not the best part, Ron. The best part: Three days on, four days off,’” said Nielsen, who retired from US Airways in 2007. “I’ve been chasing that carrot ever since.”

Pilots sometimes go a week without a day off, said Getline, who retired eight years ago to Colorado at the age of 49 in part because of the exhausting schedule.

“After 9/11, things started going downhill in a hurry, and they continued going downhill,” she said. “By the time I was done, I only had three days off a month. … There were a lot of things that entered into it, but I was exhausted.”

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the airlines suffered financially after the terrorist attacks and cut back on staff. “They’re still within the regulations, but in the past they were able to give (the pilots) a little more breathing room,” she said. “Today, I think they’re scheduled pretty tightly.”

Just 10 years ago, airlines employed more than 66,000 pilots, which averaged out to a little more than 13 pilots for every airplane. In 2009, airlines employed 60,900 pilots, or 11 pilots per aircraft in operation—a 10 percent drop, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Driving a Bus

Sullivan, that star-struck third-grader, eventually worked his way up from flight engineer to co-pilot and finally to pilot at American Airlines in 1984.

“It was the pinnacle of what I wanted to do,” he said. “Then I got in there and it was like driving a bus. … I got to the point where I was tired of it. I got tired of doing the same thing every single time I went flying.”

Sullivan flew commercial flights for about five years before switching to charter and corporate flights. He also worked briefly as a safety inspector for the FAA.

Like other pilots, he has seen dramatic changes in the industry. Pilots who used to get special privileges now eat sack lunches in the cockpit, sleep in crowded pilot lounges and go through security checkpoints just like everyone else.

“One of the biggest insults crews have to experience is going through security,” Sullivan said. “Think of the ridiculousness of putting the crew through security. If the pilot is going to crash the airplane, he doesn’t need a flashlight or a box cutter to do it.”

Retired pilot Nielsen pointed out that every cockpit is equipped with a fire ax. “That’s the joke,” he said. “Not to mention we’ve got the controls.”

Getline recalled a time in Honolulu when she had her screwdriver confiscated by security. “Well, I was a flight engineer; I wanted my screw driver. I needed it,” she said. “He wouldn’t give it to me.”

Other pilots remember when they used to be served the kind of meals that first-class passengers get. Now they’re more likely to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cockpit.

“We don’t have crew meals,” said pilot Raymond Chase, 40, of Ohio. “The only way we get food is by buying it ourselves in the airport or eating the food on the airplane, which is crackers, pretzels and cookies.”

Malcolm Brenner, a human performance specialist at the NTSB, laments the changes.

“The public thinks of pilots as being wealthy, and suddenly here’s these pilots who can’t afford to live in New York who are sleeping in a pilot lounge and then talking about how uncomfortable they feel when they’re in icing conditions and about to land,” Brenner said. “My God, has the industry gotten to that point?”

Getline said she knows a pilot who quit his job at US Airways to become a corporate pilot. “In the past you would never do that. You would never leave an airline job for a corporate job,” she said. “He was tired all the time. Some (corporate jobs) are better than others, but this was a really good one— a Gulfstream, really good working conditions.

“And, by the way, he just got furloughed.”

Charlie Litton writes for News21, from which this article is adapted.


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