Airline pilots walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.
Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images
The United States is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travelers return after more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The crisis is causing the industry to struggle for solutions.
At least one lawmaker is reportedly considering legislation that could raise the federal retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 or higher to extend aviators’ time in the skies.
A regional airline proposed reducing flight hour requirements before joining a US carrier, and airlines are reconsidering training programs to lower the barrier to entry. Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines joined other major airlines in dropping a four-year degree in pilot hiring requirements.
Several US airlines, including Frontier, are recruiting some pilots from Australia. American Airlines sells bus tickets for some short routes.
But some airline executives warn it could take years to fix the shortage.
“The pilot shortage in the industry is real, and most airlines simply won’t be able to meet their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a quarterly Earnings call in April.
Kirby estimates that the regional airlines that United works with currently have about 150 planes grounded because of pilot shortages.
roots of the crisis
The Covid pandemic halted pilot hiring as training and licensing slowed. Airlines handed out early retirement packages to thousands of pilots and other employees to cut labor costs as travel demand slumped during the crisis.
“I feel like I ran away at the top,” said a former major US airline captain who accepted an early retirement package in 2020.
Now airlines are desperate to hire and train pilots, but the rush could take too long to avoid flight cuts.
Major U.S. airlines are seeking to collectively hire more than 12,000 pilots this year alone, more than double the previous record for annual hiring, according to Kit Darby, pilot salaries consultant and retired United captain.
The shortage is particularly acute for regional airlines that serve the hubs of major airlines from smaller cities. While hiring and retention bonuses have returned at these airlines, the pay there is lower than at the majors, and they are recruiting aggressively at these smaller airlines.
Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, which flies for American and United, lost nearly $43 million last quarter as flight cuts mounted.
“We’ve never measured turnover rates like this,” said Jonathan Ornstein, Mesa’s CEO. “If we don’t fly our planes, we lose money. You’ve seen our quarterly numbers.”
Ornstein says it takes Mesa an estimated 120 days to replace a pilot who gave two weeks notice to switch to another airline.
“We could use 200 pilots now,” he said.
Some airlines, such as Frontier and regional airline SkyWest, are recruiting pilots from Australia on special visas to make up for the shortage, but the numbers are small compared to their overall ranks and recruitment targets.
Regional carrier Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, applied to the US government last month to allow pilots to fly with 750 hours for the airline, half of the 1,500 currently required if they complete the airline’s training program run through. There are already exceptions to the 1,500-hour rule, such as for U.S. military-trained pilots and those enrolled in two- and four-year programs that include flight training.
The proposal was rejected by family members of the victims of the 2009 Colgan Air 3407 crash, the last fatal crash of a US passenger airline. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and initiated the so-called 1,500-hour rule aimed at ensuring pilot experience.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., is considering introducing Congressional legislation that could raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from the current 65 to at least 67, according to people familiar with Graham’s plans. About a third of airline-qualified pilots in the US are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the country’s airline pilots will reach retirement age within five years, according to the Regional Airline Association.
Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The shortage of pilots and other workers has forced airlines to reconsider their growth plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are among the airlines that recently reduced capacity.
For its part, SkyWest told the Department of Transportation that it plans to end service to 29 smaller cities that the government subsidizes through Essential Air Service.
Service reductions could isolate smaller US cities, but Darby, the adviser on pilot salaries, said it could mean an opening up to smaller competitors that don’t rely on regional carriers as much as big network carriers.
“If they don’t fly it, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.
One of the biggest hurdles to attracting new pilots is the cost of training. While salaries for widebody captains at major airlines can exceed $350,000 a year, it takes years to qualify.
At the ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, a full-time, seven-month program costs almost $92,000 to get initial licenses. It can then take around 18 months or more for pilots to accumulate enough hours to fly, often by teaching student pilots or sometimes by raising banners near beaches.
“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. “You can’t just let someone come off the street.”
In December, United began teaching the first students at its own flight school, United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with a goal of educating 5,000 pilots by 2030. United say it is aiming for half that number to be women or people of color. The company covers the cost of training the pilots until they receive their private pilot license, which they estimate at around $17,000 per student.
Other agencies have turned to soft loans or other initiatives to ease the financial burden on students.
“There’s no quick fix,” Darby said.