When it comes to identifying what’s needed to solve the ongoing pilot shortage, not everyone in the industry is in agreement.
Congress and industry stakeholders—including leaders representing airlines and pilots—met recently to discuss workforce challenges ahead of an upcoming FAA reauthorization bill. During the House Aviation Subcommittee hearing on April 19, stakeholders disagreed on the severity of a pilot shortage and whether suggested measures, such as reducing flight time requirements or extending the retirement age, would alleviate issues.
During her testimony, Regional Airline Association president and CEO Faye Malarkey Black called the current pilot shortage “devastating.” Black noted that more than 500 regional aircraft are parked and those remaining in service are underutilized. “The impact has been felt by 308 airports, or almost 72 percent of all U.S. airports,” she said.
Black also stated one of the main drivers of the pilot shortage is the FAA’s unwillingness to advance pilot training standards, which have remained stagnant for years.
Black warned of an incoming “tsunami of pilot retirements,” which will further exacerbate an already strained system. “Over the next 15 years, nearly 50 percent of the commercial airline workforce will be forced to retire because they will reach the age of 65,” Black said.
However, not all agree with measures to change flight time requirements and extend the retirement age.
ALPA President and CEO Jason Ambrosi said that since Congress enacted the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, also known as “the 1500-hour rule,” the U.S. has experienced a 99.8 percent reduction in airline passenger fatalities. With recent safety close calls, Ambrosi made it clear there should be no reason to lower safety standards.
“Over the past 10 years, the United States has not only reduced airline passenger fatalities but also produced more than enough pilots to meet airline hiring demand,” Ambrosi noted. “The groups that continue the flood of misinformation and misleading data are only interested in one thing: manufacturing a crisis to lower aviation safety standards and increase their bottom line.”
Ambrosi said pilot supply problems are due to training backlogs in the aftermath of the pandemic, while regional airlines have issues with pilot attrition. Airlines made decisions to offer early retirements, bump pilots to smaller aircraft, put pilots on inactive status, and park aircraft—all contributing to a training backlog that is currently correcting itself, he said.
Current FAA data shows pilot production remains strong, with 2,658 new airline pilots certificated in the first three months of this year. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) also found that pilot training enrollment has increased in recent years.
In Wednesday’s hearing, Heather Krause, GAO director of physical infrastructure, stated that forecasters project an increase in pilot supply; however, “the extent to which projected supply would exceed or fall short of industry’s demand for pilots is unknown given uncertainties surrounding future demand.”
Meanwhile, pilot hiring is in full effect at major airlines. To attract talent, air carriers have increased pilot pay and offered significant sign-on bonuses.
There is one point on which lawmakers and industry groups all agree—that attracting new talent to aviation is critical for the viability of the industry.
“The men and women who keep the cogs turning in factories, repair facilities, cockpits, and air traffic control towers across the country are not only instrumental to ensuring the safety of the traveling public, but also to ensuring the global competitiveness of the American aerospace industry,” said Chairman Sam Graves (R-Missouri).
Congress has until September 30 to pass a new FAA reauthorization bill.