Pilot Squeeze

You've heard it so many times that you probably don't believe it, but a severe pilot shortage really could be just around the corner.

Pilot Shortage

Pilot Shortage

We’ve been hearing talk about a looming “pilot shortage” for so long that we’ve stopped believing it. But I had dinner last night with a group of regional airline pilots, all in their mid-30s and all left-seaters on CRJ 700s, who told me they’re convinced a pilot shortage is coming. They might be right this time.

As you probably know, FAA rules taking effect next summer will require newly hired airline pilots to have 1,500 hours of prior flight experience – versus 300 hours during the last hiring boom – raising the cost and time to train new pilots at a time when pay cuts and schedule demands already have made the profession less attractive. Meanwhile, thousands of gray beards at the majors will soon start hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65 – which was raised from age 60 a few years ago.

Another new FAA rule, set to take effect in early 2014, will squeeze the supply even more by changing pilot rest and duty time rules. This is a great idea, of course, but the new rules will force airlines to add to their pilot ranks just to maintain their current flight schedules. Add to this the growing trend of U.S. pilots seeking flying opportunities overseas and the problem only gets worse.

The guys I was having dinner with said they’ve taken pay cuts recently, and if they had to do it all over again, they probably wouldn’t choose to become professional pilots. The cost of going to school is too high and the new minimum hours requirements would be a deal breaker if they had to sign on with an airline for food stamp wages.

The hourly requirements will be slightly less for pilots who trained through a four-year aviation university or the military (750 and 1,000 hours), but for the majority of young pilots the changes will mean being stuck at the flight instructor level longer and, for the university grads, the prospect of a mountain of student loan debt.

Supply and demand being what it is, the airlines, and especially commuter airlines, might be forced to pay starting pilots more and offer further incentives in the form of signing bonuses. But even then, they could find they have fewer takers than they need.