Where have all the pilots gone? How a looming shortage may curtail e-commerce

Bug smashers, nearjets, flippers, junkstreams. To most pilots, these names conjure memories of their first jobs in the business, flying small aircraft for regional carriers, often carrying cargo. “It’s real flying, the sort that puts hair on your chest,” a seasoned American pilot named Dover explained. “There’s nothing glamorous about it. You are the dispatcher, it’s your job to check the weather, and if it’s legal to go, you go. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be there because I wanted to fly. I wanted to be a pilot.”

A lot has changed since the late 1990s when Dover logged 250 flight hours, earned his commercial pilot certificate and started flying a small plane for a regional cargo carrier based out of Florida, “flying blood, piss and checks around at night.” He’s since moved up to a major carrier, and now pilots widebody freighters around the world. But the pool of young pilots waiting to replace him is drying up. No pilots means planes can’t fly, and that’s a looming problem for the air cargo business at the dawn of the e-commerce era.

Regional carriers in North America have started performing triage, reducing schedules and cutting routes, but there’s no end in sight. In fact, it’s about to get worse. A 2013 investigation, sponsored by the University of North Dakota (UND), projected that 45,000 pilots will retire by 2033, more than twice the 18,000 regional pilots in service at the time. Each year, fewer pilots are moving up the ladder, and all the while, demand for passenger and cargo services keeps rising.

America’s pilot shortage is a slow-burning crisis that has the potential to disrupt the national economy and undercut growing sectors like e-commerce. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimated that the U.S. airline industry contributes more than US$1.3 trillion to the national economy, or 5.2 percent of the country’s GDP.

While larger carriers are still flying lucrative e-commerce goods, pharmaceuticals, perishables and high-end electronics, the issue is beginning to fester at the roots of the industry. Airlines that connect small-town America to the large package delivery hubs of the integrators are downsizing for lack of pilots. Carriers that serve the major integrators report being forced to abandon routes, furlough employees and forego millions of dollars in revenues because of the pilot shortage.

The problem is moving up the food chain. “Major trunk airlines have begun to see ‘no shows’ in their new-hire pilot training classes as a result of more attractive offers from competing carriers,” said John Hazlet, vice president of the Regional Air Cargo Carrier Association (RACCA). “This situation was unheard of only a few years ago, when a class date at a major airline was regarded as a priceless commodity.”

As Southwest Airlines’ senior manager Greg Muccio phrased it, “if we don’t have enough pilots, planes don’t fly.”

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