High gas prices. Bad weather. Too many people traveling.
Those are some of the factors causing travel chaos this summer, but a shortage of pilots that has been brewing for years has also added strain to the industry.
“The problem at airlines is, when you’re short on ramp staff, when you’re short on ops agents, it just delays flights,” Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said. “But when you don’t have a pilot, they are canceled or delayed for hours as pilots are moved into position to move that airplane.”
During the pandemic, thousands of pilots took early retirement packages, and because of disruptions in pilot training programs, there were also fewer people joining the industry.
This exacerbated an existing problem, as the pipeline of new pilots was already too low before the virus hit, according to Faye Malarkey Black, who leads the Regional Airline Association (RAA).
“This is something that we’ve been warning about for over a decade and certainly the pandemic has made it worse, but I really want to emphasize we’ve got to get away from the notion that the pilot shortage is just following the pandemic,” Black said.
To fight the economic impact of the pandemic, airlines received $54 billion in taxpayer-funded relief as payroll support. Its purpose was to keep pilots and other airline employees so they would be ready to go when air travel demand returned. Instead, the airlines provided pilots and other workers with those early retirement packages and incentives to leave, leaving them even more short-staffed now.
Still, Captain Casey Murray said the pandemic offered a short-term reprieve from the shortage because people were traveling less, meaning those who were still flying could meet the reduced demand. But now that demand has returned, airlines have been trying to catch up on hiring.
For that, they turned to regional airlines that usually act as career entry points.
“That’s the natural career order,” Black said. “It’s always been the case, but what the pandemic did was accelerate it because there were early exits that happened. So, this sort of big confluence of retirements that we saw approaching, suddenly happened years ahead of schedule.”
So, as airlines filled their openings with pilots from regional carriers, and fewer new pilot certificates were issued in the last two years, there were “fewer pilots than ever” to take the positions, Black said.
This has made it hard for regional carriers to keep up their service and partner up with major airlines, directly affecting the connectivity of small communities, Black said.
“So a community like Chattanooga, for example, where they’ve lost over a third of their air service, they might have lost their direct flight to D.C. or their direct flight to New York,” she said. “It’s that meaningful measure of their connectivity that was at one place before the pandemic and coming out of the pandemic is in another place altogether.”
Years of shrinking pipeline, and more to come
Black said part of the reason there had been a low supply of pilots over the years was how expensive it was to get started in the field. Pilot training can cost $80,000 to $100,000 or more, and financial aid doesn’t cover it all.
“You can’t just get a student loan and expect it to cover the full breadth of your pilot training costs,” she said. “It falls far short of the actual cost, and so aspiring pilots are left to make up that difference out of pocket and a lot of them can’t.”
Some airlines have created training programs or even their own flight schools to help assuage the shortage. But those may not be able to solve the shortage immediately.
“It takes 60 to 90 days to interview, hire and put a pilot through training,” Murray said. “So, the airlines have to be very proactive, and everybody’s competing for the same shrinking pool.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there could be about 14,500 pilot openings each year for the next decade, but it is unclear how many new pilots will be there to fill those jobs.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which issues new pilot certificates, has issued an average of just 6,500 certificates a year in the past decade. And as the virus disrupted training programs, there was a decrease in applicants and, in turn, a slight dip in certificates in 2020 and 2021.
Aspiring pilots also have to log 1,500 hours of flight time, and once they become airline pilots, they’re required to retire at 65 years old.
“So just as the pandemic didn’t start this pilot shortage, it’s not temporary. It’s something that’s going to get worse unless we take action on several fronts,” she said.
Some of those actions, she said, include reducing the financial barriers in aviation education, so more people, especially those from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds, had an easier time entering the workforce.
Black said policymakers also had a role to play.
“There are not enough training institutions. Those that exist are oversubscribed. There [is] not enough financial support for individuals who want to become a pilot,” she said.
“And so for all these great industry investments to truly bear fruit, we need some support for pilots of the very early stages from policymakers so they can get into this great career and access the high wages and rewards on the other side; and we can also keep communities connected,” Black said.