Airlines Preparing for Pilot Shortage

Virgin America airliner interior

Indications point to a looming pilot shortage - Photo courtesy of and copyright Brandon Farris

The already hectic airline industry is currently facing a new problem as prospective pilots are rapidly turning down commercial airline pilot jobs in lieu of less demanding, more profitable ventures. As pilot salaries have diminished over the years, perfectly qualified candidates are not keen on the idea of earning less than $20,000 a year, for several years, as they work their way up to a top airline gig.

This disinterest comes at a time when airline carriers are looking to hire many new pilots to compensate for a recent wave of retirements. Is it a surprise, though, that pilots should be retiring in the wake of extreme cutbacks that make demanding piloting jobs completely not worth the effort? Until about ten years ago, senior pilots made about $200,000 with full benefits; now, they receive fewer benefits and are paid much less. Airlines like Delta and US Airways furloughed thousands of pilots following the economic downturn, slashed pay for senior pilots, and terminated pension plans. US Airways pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who made headlines with his heroic water-landing in New York City’s Hudson river, told a House of Representatives subcommittee that pay cuts on airline pilot salary have put senior pilots in “untenable” positions. “I do not know a single professional airline pilot,” he said, “who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps.”

The outfits taking the biggest financial hit, according to aviation professionals, are the regional airlines: the “feeders” that fly travelers from the major airlines to and from small cities. Most pilots start their careers at the regional airlines; now, they are not so inclined. Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, fears that some smaller cities will be left without airline service. Others, like Louis Smith, president of, shares his viewpoint, “It’s going to be like a snowstorm that hits only the regionals. They will run short and cancel flights as soon as this summer,” he said.

Resulting from the cutbacks, enrollment at flight schools inevitably dropped. In fact, enrollment has tanked 26% in the last decade, including professional and recreational pilots. The lack of enrollment can also be attributed to the banks, most of which halted loans for aviation training. JetBlue has been one of the only airlines to consistently hire more pilots.

The FAA is doing its best to help reverse the negative trends. In 2007 they raised the mandatory retirement age to 65, from 60. Also, they are helping lighten the load on pilots, allowing for more rest time and fewer hours. The requirements on pilots remain rigorous, however, as prospective pilots of commercial flights must log 1500 hours of flight time. First officers have to fly only 250 hours.

As the rules and benefits for commercial airline piloting become more rigid, it is no wonder that many prospective pilots are looking towards corporate business jobs in aviation.

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