Chesterfield, Virginia (WWBT) – Major airlines across the country are canceling hundreds of flights a day, citing a pilot shortage after encouraging many pilots to retire early during the pandemic while reducing demand during the recovery. To date, more than 300 airports nationwide now offer fewer flights.
One hundred and eighty-eight airports lost more than 25% of their flights. At least nine airports no longer have any incoming or outgoing flights. It is estimated that the aviation industry will shorten by 12,000 pilots by next year.
But former airline pilot and CEO of Richmond Executive School of Aviation (REA) Captain Mark Hackett says the problem has spread after industry-wide cuts, wages and pensions after 9/11.
“Pilot pay and benefits were cut after 9/11. Pensions and 401k plans held up during bankruptcy court. Pilot salaries have been halved as airlines struggle to survive, and he has already cut back his pilot training pool from September 11, 2001, until today,” Hackett said. .
Barriers to entry in aviation have also limited the pool of qualified pilots available and how quickly they can become certified, Hackett says.
“We also have a shortage because it costs a lot of money to become a professional pilot. You have to have a lot of training, you have to have an FAA certification, and now since 2009 you have 1,500 hours of flight time to qualify as an air transport pilot,” Hackett said. “We’re seeing a decrease in the number of airline pilots who can fill those seats today.”
Prior to 2009, the required training hours for new pilots were only 350. And while safety requirements have improved dramatically across the industry, Hackett says, it also means that it takes longer for pilots to become certified, which is why maintaining a strong training and staffing pool is critical to the health of the aviation industry.
“Because of this fast-paced recovery, you can’t just move your fingers and have a pilot go from your assignment to your seat,” Hackett said. “Take time. Those pilots we train here at Richmond Executive Aviation must have 1,500 hours of flying experience before they even qualify for the airlines, and that takes years.”
Hackett says that while the pandemic has hit the airline industry hard, it has also slowed the demand for pilots. During that time, airlines reduced the number of pilots they were training for, betting that recovery after the pandemic would take longer.
“Airlines have been struggling to keep them going during the pandemic, so they have halted their hiring cycles, their pilot groups, and their search for qualified pilots,” Hackett said. “In order to save resources, airlines haven’t put in a lot of resources to get these qualified candidates into seats fast enough, and now that the industry has recovered much faster than expected, the pilot shortage is starting to rear its ugly head again.”
There is also a requirement by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – that airline pilots retire once they reach the age of 65. Hackett says the age requirement has been increased from 60 in 2007, which has brought the industry up to the time of the pandemic.
“Had the pandemic not happened, airlines would have had the pilot shortage that we see now much earlier,” Hackett said. “You can’t fly drones, and you can’t be safe unless those pilots are highly qualified.”
The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents the world’s largest union of pilots, says there were 8,000 newly certified pilots last year, and poor planning from airline fill jobs is to blame.
“Some airlines are trying to distract from their profit-first decisions by cutting service by falsely claiming that there is a shortage of available pilots,” the union said in a press release.
“ALPA is ready to cooperate with anyone who comes to the negotiating table in good faith, and to work together to help our industry get through this difficult period. However, we will not allow anyone to take advantage of this current moment to divert attention away from their mismanagement of pandemic relief while trying to undermine aviation safety.” ALPA President Captain Joe Dibbett said.
Hackett says many of the issues that plague the airline industry today come to mind. He says there are more than 250,000 qualified pilots nationwide but about 85,000 jobs in airlines. Despite the excess, he says, many pilots are not rushing to fill gaps in the aviation industry due to concerns about their quality of life on the job.
“That’s where we are today,” Hackett said. “It will cancel hundreds of flights, and no airline or plane will be exempt from having a pilot on board.”
Hackett says he is not in favor of reducing the hours of training required to become certified. However, he believes in improving the quality of training to prepare pilots for the technology and equipment they will use on modern aircraft.
“Whether you fly a smaller plane, a commercial airliner, or a corporate jet, the qualifications of a pilot to carry passengers are about the same,” Hackett said. “It is not an overnight quick fix, and because of this problem, today we are seeing mischief due to a shortage of pilots. Training protocols have to change.”
He says the benefit of REA is that it trains its pilots in technology they will use in the field rather than older aircraft, which he says not only prepares future pilots for what they will work for an airline but can also qualify faster pilots. Hackett says this cannot be the only problem being addressed to solve the pilot shortage.
“The biggest problem is that we have to fix pilots’ quality of life and pilot wages. We need to protect the industry as far as safety is concerned, and we can’t reduce the minimum hours for certification just to get the youngest pilots who want to fly for less, which is what companies want to do Hackett said.
Hackett says there is also a need for more flight schools to train the next generation of pilots to meet future airline demand, but he says local governments can make creating such services difficult.
“We also have to open more flight schools; flight schools are breaking the seams,” Hackett said. “It was very difficult to open our flight school. We’ve had a lot of breaks with Chesterfield County and we still do to this day.”
Even if these solutions are put in place today, Hackett says consumers should expect the effects of the shortage to persist beyond the summer.
It’s not tomorrow, it’s not the end of summer—we’re in trouble,” said Hackett. “Actually, this is the tip of the iceberg. This is going to get a lot worse. We’re talking about 10 to 15 years before we see an industry modify training protocols and pilots.”
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