Anatomy of a shortage
The factors that led to the scarcity of new pilots are numerous, but one incident on Feb. 12, 2009, could be considered a major catalyst. On that day, Colgan Air Flight 3407, flying under a code-share agreement with Continental Airlines, crashed en route from Newark to Buffalo. The Dash-8 Q400, entered an aerodynamic stall from which it did not recover and slammed into a house in Clarence Center, New York, killing all 49 passengers and crew on board, as well as one person on the ground.
A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the probable cause to be the pilots’ inappropriate response to the stall warnings due to inadequate training. Families of the victims lobbied the U.S. Congress for more stringent regulations for regional carriers, and more rigorous scrutiny of operating procedures and working conditions of pilots. Congress responded by passing Public Law 111-216, which mandated 1,500 hours of flight time and airline transport pilot certification (ATP) before most pilots could fly commercially. The new stipulations raised the barriers to entry overnight.
According to the UND study, adjusted for inflation, initial pilot training is “almost three times more expensive as it was in 1990.” Meeting the new training requirements can cost pilots upwards of $160,000. That’s the cost of a law degree. But, with starting salaries at regional carriers in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, the costs outweigh the rewards for many, and the scheduling is a further deterrent. Then there’s time. After certified flight instructor (CFI) instruction, an additional two years of flight training will be needed to achieve restricted ATP minimums. These factors have caused a significant rise in the number of career-oriented pilots abandoning their training for financial reasons.
President Trump has said he wants to spur domestic manufacturing, however, that will require timely connectivity and, aside from balloons, most aircraft need more than hot air to fly. But lawmakers in Washington, D.C., including Sen. Charles Schumer, who introduced the legislation partly responsible for the current crisis, are stonewalling industry representatives. “We have turned to the government, and to date, we’ve had no success in lobbying The Hill or the FAA in getting any relief in the pilot’s hiring requirements,” said Stan Bernstein, president of RACCA.
One reason Congress might be slow to respond is that, on paper, U.S. flight schools are still churning out a respectable number of commercial-instrument, multi-engine pilot certifications. A GAO report, commissioned shortly after Public Law 111-216 went into effect, substantiated this, but failed to acknowledge that the majority of students seeking certification in the U.S. were from foreign countries. One RACCA publication found that, “85 percent of these pilots are funded with foreign money, will go to foreign airlines, and will never enter the U.S. pilot market.” The statistics are skewed, and according to RACCA, so is Congress’ appreciation of the situation.
At the moment, regional carriers are experiencing the brunt of the pilot’s shortage, and on the cargo side, the shortage is disruptive. Bernstein said that some RACCA airlines had been forced to raise salaries by 80 percent over two years just to maintain crews. Tim Komberec, president and CEO of Idaho-based Empire Airlines, said that the number of people entering the profession was 20 percent of what it used to be. “We’re in trouble,” he concluded.