Proof That The Great Pilot Shortage Is Real

Remember when you took the SAT or ACT and started getting flyers in the mail from colleges all over the country? It's flattering at first, but as more and more flyers start to pile up, you start to wonder how desperate those colleges must be. I applied to (and got hired by) a major US airline last year. Apparently my name got sold to someone because I've started receiving flyers from regional airlines.

The flyer I got in the mail yesterday shocked me. It offered me a $50 Amazon gift card if I'd just show up to an interview.

I've talked with some pilots for this airline, and as far as I can tell it's a good company. Their flyer offered paid training, health insurance, a guaranteed upgrade to Captain in less than a year (if qualified,) a free ATP CTP course if needed, a competitive hourly rate and many more benefits. They fly nice jets out of decent domiciles.

They seem to have aircraft and jobs just waiting for pilots; and yet, it's apparently so difficult for them to attract pilots that they feel like they have to resort to manipulations like a $50 gift card to attract people.

I've heard some people express doubt that The Great Pilot Shortage some have been predicting is in fact just a myth. Based on the flyer I got yesterday, I assert that there is no longer any debate. Our country is severely short on pilots.

Pilot hiring is just one obstacle in long list of issues that Regional airlines have have to deal with these days. I'm not sure we're going to see the coverage of small-town airports that we've enjoyed for the last decade or two for much longer.

So how do we fix things?

That's the billion-dollar question in the airline industry right now. I don't have all the answers, but I'll throw out a few ideas that are at least starting places. What else can we do? Leave a comment below if you have a solution.

A lot of people say that we don't have a pilot shortage, we have a pilot pay shortage. This is absolutely true. Even a few years ago, it was a lot to ask a person to pay tens of thousands for college, tens of thousands for flight training...and then take a job at a regional airline that pays $22,000 per year. Since the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in Buffalo, things have only gotten pilots have to amass 1500 flight hours, pay for an outrageously expensive ATP CTP course, and complete an ATP practical exam just to get into the right seat of a regional. What may have been a couple tens of thousands of dollars for flight training could now easily reach above $100,000. Regional pay is increasing's getting close to starting at $30,000. The regionals have enough turnover that they're able to upgrade people to Captain quickly and a regional pilot can reasonably expect to make closer to $60,000 within a year or two. However, that's still nowhere near good enough to entice people to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in education right now. So...we definitely need to pay pilots more. Now where is that money going to come from?

The government's answer could be to increase subsidies to airlines, hoping that those dollars will be passed on to the aircrews. I'm not going to vote to pay more taxes though, how about you?

There are also frequent calls to cut pay for the people at the top of the company and distribute it among everyone else. (Hey, we had to learn something from the Russkies on the other side of the Cold War, right?) This strategy could actually make some difference at the regionals where the number of employees in the company is small. Let's assume for a moment that a regional airline can ignore all its flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, baggage handlers, etc. (which would be a huge mistake) and only increase pilot pay. For a small company with 500-100 pilots, every $1M decrease in executive pay would result in a $1000-2000 per year raise for pilots. For pilots who only make $30K, that would be a 3-6% raise. Not bad. Unfortunately, even most regionals have more pilots than this and any pay increases would have to be distributed, at least in part, among all the company's employees. So, decreasing executive pay could be part of the answer, but it's not a silver bullet.

One big problem I see is that the American public seems to be stuck in the mindset that each of us is entitled to travel by air for no more than about $100 per leg. Sadly, that math just isn't realistic anymore. At those kinds of prices, an airline can't possibly continue to exist without massive government subsidies. I think part of any solution has to be getting Americans to want to pay more for air travel. That's no easy task, but it's critical. The authors of Freakonomics have a great blog with a guest post that does an excellent job explaining the rationale behind this argument. The trick is getting the rest of our country to buy in to this idea. Anyone thoughts on how to make that happen?

We need to find ways to make life better for aircrews. Contrary to what Congress was led to believe, mandating 1500 flight hours of "experience" for an airline first officer does nothing to address the problems that led to the Colgan Air crash. Both pilots had more than 2000 hours. Far more important (and largely ignored) were lack of training/education and chronic fatigue induced by a job that requires constant travel while living on $22,000 per year. It'd be nice to say that pilots have to fly less...or at least get more rest between flights. The airlines can't make that happen without more pilots to cover their lines though. That would require hiring more pilots...which brings us back to regionals offering an Amazon gift card just to interview.

I foresee the airlines taking an approach more like the USAF and some foreign airlines. They'll have to hire young men and women and give them a contract that says, "We'll pay for all your flight training, but then we own you for the next 10 years of your life." It works because it doesn't try to eliminate the indebtedness incurred by receiving the flight training. Instead, it just changes the nature of the debt from a crushing, individual burden in the form of loans, to a professional relationship with a long-term employer. The company can find their own economies in training, and spread a pay reduction to cover the training over 10 years. This also ensures that pilots don't take advantage of some expensive training and then run. It actually works very well for our military and I think it could work for the airlines if they can stay committed to treating their people well. I think part of this solution will require the major airlines to partner more closely with the regionals, or just take over their routes and grow their own pilots. (I've seen some indication that this is about to happen anyway.)

There isn't a single fix to all our problems and none of the possible solutions will be easy. I do expect that we're going to see some significant changes in American air travel over the next few years. If you have any ideas for helping the end-state of the industry a good one, please let us know in the comments!