Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pilot Shortage? - on the horizon

Its been over a month since I posted here.  Oh, should I be ashamed?  No, I've been busy with other stuff, and will continue to be.  I do have a story almost ready to post, however.  The logbook binder business has kept me busy and will still (they're selling!), I just trained for and passed another six month PC (yea!), I've entered pilot job hunting mode, and other major tasks await as well.  Based on what my PC examiner told me and on what I've observed recently in the industry, I banged this one out though.  Its worth looking at if you're a pilot today or want to be one.

Magazines articles and flight school advertisements have trumpeted it for years, but it seems a real pilot shortage in the USA and around the world is around the corner, or is 'here'.

This doesn't mean that a major domestic or international airline will hire you off the street with only your private pilot license, however. Not yet and not in the foreseeable future, anyway, but things could always change. The shortage will occur and is occurring at the lower levels of aviation, the flight instructor, charter, small plane cargo, and commuter and regional airline level.

As many aging 'baby-boomer' pilots reach mandatory retirement age (now 65) over the next 5-10 years, a great need for pilots will occur at all levels, as younger, qualified pilots replace them and create a need to hire new pilots at the lower levels.  And the forecast for airline passenger flying is that it will continue to increase.

At the same time three factors have produced a low supply of new pilots. One: the high cost of civilian pilot training has discouraged many from pursuing the career. Pilot training starts are at very low levels. Two: Lower level pilot salaries and benefits discourage pilots from staying in the career or starting one. Three: Military pilots coming to the airline industry are fewer in number than in the past, because they serve longer, there are fewer of them to begin with, and more choose not to have an airline pilot career.

My contacts in the regional airline industry tell me that they are having a hard time finding pilots who are qualified and capable to complete the strenuous training involved.

Maybe you don't believe the hype, because you've seen it before.  Its true that 'pilot factories' and flight schools do hype the 'pilot shortage' problem to lure new students, but the reality of a shortage is present, and I believe the problem will get worse.  Don't just take my word for it.  I've found a few great blog articles which expound on the truth of this shortage and the reality of what an airline career is really like.

If you want to be a professional pilot, now is the time to be training and earning your pilot certificates. With a lack of supply and the same demand, airlines will be increasing pay, benefits, and providing bonuses to attract qualified pilots. You will still need to be intelligent, have good social skills, and have good pilot skills, especially instrument skills - you will still need to be a professional.  But there will be opportunities aplenty, I believe for pilots to start a career now and in the future. 

The worst case scenario, for the airlines, is that so few capable and qualified pilots will be available that planes will be parked and flights will be cancelled for lack of pilots to fly them. At the regional level, larger planes will be operated than now, and the flights will be less frequent. I'm not promising that this will happen, but it could.

But something has been thrown like a wrench into an engine, to make things worse; let me explain.  It started after a bad commuter turboprop crash at Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009.  After investigation showed that both relatively inexperienced pilots exhibited poor airmanship, the FAA and Congress have raised the minimum airline pilot qualifications for the future.  I support the legislation, because it will subsequently serve to increase the pay, benefits, and quality of life of pilots, and safety for the flying public.  Also in the aftermath, the FAA is now attempting to make flight and duty rules more conservative, to combat fatigue and further increase the safety of airline flying.

Both laws will in effect increase the pilot shortage, because of higher pilot experience minimums required and more pilots required to cover the same amount of flying, due to more conservative (and safer) flight and duty rules.

But the airline industry and their lobbyists are aggressively fighting both of these legislative efforts.  The effects of a real pilot shortage at the regional and commuter levels put even more pressure on this situation.  If you're concerned about your safety on your next regional airline flight, contact your congressman!  Its the American way.

Back to the 'shortage': This will take years, more than a decade to pan out.  A shortage will be good for the quality of life of pilots, as wages and benefits do generally increase as demand increases and as supply decreases. It is up to airline pilots and their unions to ensure that (1) they are given a minimum of what they deserve and (2) they are given what the free market 'can afford'. The best airlines will recognize this dynamic and respond appropriately.

Airline and fractional flying requires many qualifications and sacrifices, but for those who love flying enough to tolerate and manage the disadvantages, it will still be a worthwhile career for the future.