US pilot shortage forces airlines to cut flights, scramble for solutions

Airline pilots walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Anna Moneymaker | beautiful pictures

The United States is facing the worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travelers are returning more than two years after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis left the industry scrambling for solutions.

At least one legislator is said to be considering legislation that could raise the federally mandated retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 or higher to extend pilots’ time in the air.

One regional airline has proposed reducing flight time requirements before joining a US airline, and airlines are reviewing training programs to reduce barriers to entry. This early year, Delta Airlines joined other major carriers in reducing their pilot recruitment requirements by four years.

Several US airlines, including Borderis recruiting some pilots from Australia. American Airlines are selling bus tickets on some short routes.

But some airline executives warn the shortage could take years to resolve.

“The pilot shortage in the industry is real, and most airlines simply won’t be able to materialize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not in the next five years.” next year”. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said during the quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimates that airlines in the area where United work now have about 150 planes grounded because of a pilot shortage.

Roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic has halted pilot recruitment due to a slowdown in training and licensing. The airlines gave Early retirement packages for thousands of pilots and other employees to cut labor bills as travel demand spikes during times of crisis.

“I feel like I’ve stepped on top,” said a former captain of a major US airline who received an early retirement package in 2020.

Now the airlines are desperate To rent and pilot trainingbut the rush time may take too long to avoid being cut off.

According to Kit Darby, a retired United States pilot pay consultant and captain, major US airlines are trying to hire more than 12,000 pilots this year, more than double the record. earlier in the annual recruitment.

Shortages are particularly acute at regional airlines, which supply major hubs for airlines from smaller cities. While recruitment and retention bonuses are back at those airlines, there pay is lower than in the professional airlines and they are hiring aggressively from those smaller airlines.

Based on Phoenix Mesa Air Groupcarrier for American and United, lost nearly $43 million last quarter as a result of extended flight cuts.

“We have never measured attrition levels like this,” said Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “If we didn’t fly the plane, we would lose money. You’ve seen our quarterly numbers.”

Mesa estimates it takes 120 days to replace a pilot who gave two weeks’ notice to another airline, according to Ornstein.

“We can use 200 pilots right now,” he said.

Some carriers like Frontier and regional airlines SkyWest are recruiting pilots from Australia on a special visa to help alleviate the shortage, but the number is small compared to their overall rank and recruitment goals.

Regional airline Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, last month petitioned the US government to allow pilots to fly for the airline for 750 hours, half of the 1,500 hours required, if they through the company’s training program. There have been exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule, such as for pilots trained in the US military and those participating in two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

The proposal received objections from family members of the 2009 victims Colgan Air 3407 accident, the United States’ last fatal commercial passenger airliner crash. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and ushered in the so-called 1,500-hour rule, intended to ensure pilot experience.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., is considering enacting congressional legislation that would raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots to at least 67 from the current age of 65, according to people familiar with the matter. Graham’s plan. According to the Regional Aviation Association, about one-third of airline qualified pilots in the US are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the country’s pilots will reach retirement age within the next five years. , according to the Regional Aviation Association.

Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Limited growth

Shortages of pilots and other staff have forced airlines to rethink their development plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines among service providers that have cut capacity recently.

SkyWestFor its part, told the Department of Transportation that it plans to reduce service to the 29 smaller cities that the government subsidizes through the Essential Air Service.

Service cuts could isolate smaller US cities, but Darby, a pilot pay consultant, said it could mean opening up doors for smaller competitors. do not depend on regional airlines as much as major network carriers.

“If they don’t fly it, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.

One of the biggest obstacles to bringing in new pilots is the cost of schooling. While salaries for wide-body captains at major airlines can exceed $350,000 a year, achieving the qualification takes years.

At ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, it costs nearly $92,000 for a seven-month full-time program to get an initial license. After that, it can take about 18 months or so for pilots to accumulate enough flight hours, usually by instructing student pilots or sometimes by hanging banners near beaches.

“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. “You can’t just have someone come in from the street.”

In December, United began teaching the first students at its own flight school, United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with the goal of training 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says it targets half of those who are women or people of color. The company covers the cost of training pilots until they receive their private pilot’s license, which is estimated at about $17,000 per student.

Other carriers have turned to low-interest loans or other initiatives to ease the financial burden on students.

“There’s no quick fix,” Darby said.

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