Anyone who knows the airline industry will agree that it faces one pressing and indisputable issue: High-seniority pilots from the regional airlines are being recruited by the major carriers to crew growing fleets, creating an acute shortage of qualified pilots coming into the regional airline system as first officers.
The shortage of qualified pilots in North America is impacting operations in ways no airline has experienced before, but it’s a problem many saw coming after the passage of Public Law 111-216, aka the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which went into effect on August 1, 2013. This law emerged as a result of the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash on February 12, 2009, which killed all 49 passengers and crew as well as one person inside a Buffalo, New York, house.
Prior to this horrific crash, first officers needed only to hold a commercial pilot certificate and to have flown a minimum of 250 hours to become a new hire and begin occupying the right seat of an aircraft for a scheduled airline. Once PL 111-216 became law, flight-time minimums jumped substantially to 1,500 hours, and an FO must now hold an airline transport pilot certificate. This harsh new policy change slammed the door shut for many lower-time applicants, sparking the current shortage. Piled on top of this was solid industrywide growth in the number of passengers flying and, simultaneously, airline pilot retirees, creating the perfect storm for a pilot shortage that industry insiders predict will only worsen.
In Boeing’s “Current Market Outlook 2016-2035,” the company says that 112,000 new qualified commercial pilots will be needed to crew aircraft operated by North American regional and major carriers. That fleet is expected to grow from 6,871 airplanes in 2015 to 8,414 in 2036, according to the FAA’s “Aerospace Forecast for Fiscal Years 2016-2036.”
To fill their urgent crew needs, many carriers are looking with renewed interest at the country’s many collegiate aeronautics programs as a valuable resource in helping to stem the shortage and keep aircraft crewed and on schedule.
For all U.S. carriers, the collegiate programs are best positioned to circumvent the 1,500-hour rule by producing applicants who graduate in approved courses, earn their Restricted Airline Transport Pilot (R-ATP) certificate and amass just 1,000 flight hours. Schools such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of North Dakota, Purdue University, Liberty University and many others are so critical to the pilot pipeline that on-campus visits by airline recruiters are becoming increasingly routine.
“We have multiple regional and major airline recruiters coming to us all the time to speak with students and graduated flight instructors,” says James P. Molloy, dean of Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics. “For students who have a definite goal of going to the airlines by meeting the requirements for an R-ATP, interviews and conditional hiring can occur as early as their sophomore year. Many of the airlines are intent on getting early commitments and are offering attractive flow-through programs.”
As the airline trade association hit hardest by the shortage, the Regional Airline Association is well positioned to comment on the pilot shortage. “If you look at the numbers, it’s a very clear picture. The number of new pilots coming in cannot keep pace with the growth and retirements at the major airlines,” said RAA president Faye Malarkey Black at the association’s annual convention in May 2016. “The pilot shortage is here, it’s very real, and it’s impacting every airline. The pool of hirable pilots ages 20 to 59 has shrunk 17 percent since 2009, at a rate of about 927 [pilots] per month.”
Black confirmed that airlines are feeling the squeeze of a reduced pool of qualified pilots, and that reduction is affecting service. “Between 2013 and 2015, 222 U.S. airports experienced scheduled service reductions of 10 percent or more, with 27 communities losing all scheduled air service,” she said. “I can tell you pilot supply is a contributing factor in an enormous amount of these service reductions. We simply do not have the pilot resources to take on all of today’s flying, and we certainly cannot take on the tremendous growth opportunities that are out there without intervention.”
“The pilot shortage is here, it’s very real, and it’s impacting every airline. The pool of hirable pilots ages 20 to 59 has shrunk 17 percent since 2009, at a rate of about 927 [pilots] per month.”
As a big supporter of the collegiate system’s pathway to the R-ATP certificate, the RAA has determined that the No. 1 thing students are interested in is having certainty in their careers. “They want a clear flow-through path from the school to the regional airlines, where they have a guaranteed interview or hiring, and continued flow from the regionals to the major airlines. Because we know these pilots dream of flying the heavy metal,” Black said.
Dr. Frank Ayers, chancellor of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s campus in Prescott, Arizona, confirms that the graduates coming out of collegiate aeronautics programs are prime targets for airline recruiters. “Our graduates are in high demand and are hired as they reach the 1,000-hour limit,” Ayers says. “These students have been immersed in an SMS safety culture right from the start and receive advanced jet pilot practical and theory ground training, so their understanding of aircraft performance, aerodynamics, and the knowledge base of flying is strong. This makes their transition to airline life significantly easier.”
More proof of the pilot shortage comes from Elizabeth Bjerke, chair of the University of North Dakota’s aviation department at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “The nation is indeed in the midst of a pilot shortage,” says Bjerke. “This shortage is being felt extensively right now at the flight instructor level at collegiate programs, and is affecting the regional airlines significantly. … Many of the major airlines … expect to start feeling the full impact of the pilot shortage in the next three to four years. Our message to prospective students is that there are many great opportunities in the aviation industry.”
UND Aerospace is so bullish on the future of collegiate training and the need to produce as many qualified applicants as possible that at the 2016 Sun ’n’ Fun International Fly-In Expo, in Lakeland, Florida, it signed a seven-year purchase agreement with Piper Aircraft for up to 112 new Archer and Seminole training aircraft. UND chose Piper, says Hans Stancil, Piper Aircraft’s general manager of sales for the Americas, because of a long relationship between the school and the maker, which allowed Piper to fully understand the school’s long-term needs. But the sale was by no means a slam-dunk when the request for proposal went out to manufacturers in 2015.
“The competition for this business was greater than for any other deal that Piper has pursued in the past,” says Stancil. “Several competitors were looking to win this business, especially when it came to the single-engine trainers. Ultimately, our relationship with the people at UND enabled us to craft an offering that included not only the right aircraft, but also the right value-added items to win the deal.”
With demand so high for qualified graduates, most of the collegiate aeronautics programs are retooling to increase capacity while upgrading their fleets to provide students with the latest in avionics technology. At Purdue University’s School of Aviation and Transportation Technology, John H. Mott, the department’s interim head, says incoming freshmen in the school’s professional flight major have continued to see steady year-over-year growth. “We typically receive many more applicants to professional flight than we are able to admit, due to capacity constraints,” Mott says. “We’ve now embarked on an initiative to improve the efficiency with which we operate our training fleet to allow more students to be admitted than in the past.”
For many of these collegiate flight students in the pilot pipeline, aviation has been on their minds from a young age, but some still need a bit of guidance to bring their aspirations into focus. When Embry-Riddle student Joseph Jewell, of Louisville, Kentucky, met some senior pilots from the Organization of Black Aeronautical Pilots at a summer camp before his freshman year of high school, their mentorship defined exactly what his career path should look like. These pilot-mentors flew for United Parcel Service out of the company’s Worldport air hub, located at the Louisville International Airport (KSDF).
“The UPS pilots running the OBAP summer program were very inspirational, very kind, and knew how to be charismatic leaders for future professional pilots,” Jewell says. “They taught me that I needed to stay focused and driven, and to be a professional pilot, I had to get a degree. In doing my research to find the right school, everything pointed me to Embry-Riddle. I finished high school with a 3.9 GPA, so I was able to get academic scholarships and a partial basketball scholarship to cover the costs. I don’t regret my decision, and Dr. Frank Ayers has been a tremendous mentor for me there. Prescott is an impressive campus, and everyone you’re walking with always looks up at a plane that’s flying over. Just the feeling of everybody on campus being aviation enthusiasts and being into airplanes motivates me every day.” With three years left at Embry-Riddle, Jewell knows he will be in a perfect position to be hired by a regional airline — the first step toward his ultimate goal of flying internationally for UPS.
A major hindrance to increasing new pilot applicants in the airline system has always been the significant disparity between the cost of completing a collegiate aviation degree program — including the flight hours to qualify for an R-ATP — and the low starting salaries at the regional airlines. But through a proliferation of signing bonuses and higher starting salaries for new first officers, pay at the regionals is finally trending upward. “The starting pay at regional airlines has come a long way in the last 12 to 18 months,” Bjerke says. Right now the average pay for the first year is around $37,500, and just over a year ago, it was around $21,000. Embry-Riddle’s Ayers notes that new-hire regional pay seems to be improving because “the responsibility borne by first officers on regional jets demands better than fast-food wages.”
UND’s Bjerke explains that as demand for pilots continues to increase at the regionals, the time to upgrade through the system to the eventual position of captain at a major airline seems to be shrinking. “I would estimate that it probably takes two to three years to upgrade to captain at a regional airline, although some regionals are much faster than that right now. Once a captain, it may take as little as two more years to be competitive for the major airlines. These times to upgrade will decrease over the next few years as the demand for pilots continues to increase,” she says.
Still, as pay at the regionals increases, the cost to earn a collegiate degree and amass the required hours for an R-ATP certificate remains high. For instance, Embry-Riddle says that while costs do vary, its four-year aeronautical science degree program costs about $44,000 per year for tuition, room and board, books, and fees. The school recommends students budget an additional $20,000 per year for flight training, equaling a total of approximately $64,000 per year. That’s about $256,000 to earn the degree, with some of those costs offset when students are hired by the school as instructor pilots in their senior year as they build hours toward that magic 1,000-hour tally.
It’s certainly a stretch to say that anyone with a pulse, 1,000 hours and an R-ATP certificate can fly for the airlines, but there has never been a better time to take the collegiate path to the right seat of a regional airliner. The carriers, while still maintaining a high level of competence, need fresh collegiate aeronautics graduates, and they need them quickly.
While these pilots will not be solely responsible for stopping the pilot shortage, imagine the staffing horrors the airlines would be facing without this well-developed and active collegiate training system. In order to secure jobs after graduation, flight students at these university training programs need to fly enough that their logbooks are filled to the 1,000-hour mark.
After they earn both the right diploma and the right pilot certificate, there will be a job waiting for just about every new professional pilot the collegiate aviation programs can produce.
Other Ways to Get to the Majors
Part 141 Flight Schools and the Military Are Good Options Too
While an ATP license and a degree from a top-rated aviation university guarantee you’ll get a close look from airlines seeking to hire qualified applicants, you don’t necessarily need to attend a four-year aviation school.
The military is always an option, and one that might just land you your dream job one day, since there’s a pilot shortage among the uniformed ranks as well.
If you go the civilian route, keep in mind the majors require a bachelor’s degree. An aviation degree is preferred but not a must. You can do some of your training at a mom-and-pop Part 61 flight school to save money, but for a serious airline-oriented education, you’ll need to attend a more structured Part 141 school.
One of the country’s biggest Part 141 schools, ATP, offers a fast-track airline pilot career program than can take you from zero time to the right seat of a regional airliner in just two years. From day one, ATP’s students are immersed in airline-style training, available at more than 30 locations around the country.
ATP’s recommended track takes 180 days to complete and requires 275 hours of total time, including 100 hours of multiengine experience and, best of all, a guaranteed flight instructor job at the conclusion of the course so you can immediately start building hours toward the 1,500 needed to get hired by an airline. The cost is roughly $74,000, plus another $4,800 in examiner fees.