Airline pilots pass through Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images

The United States is facing the biggest shortage of pilots in recent times, forcing airlines to cut flights when travelers return after more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis has forced the industry to seek solutions.

At least one lawmaker is considering legislation that could raise the federal-mandated retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 and above to extend the length of stay of aviators in the sky.

The regional airline has proposed reducing flight hours before joining an American carrier, and airlines are reviewing training programs to lower the barrier to entry. Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines joined other major carriers in waiving a four-year degree from pilot hiring requirements.

Several American airlines, including Frontier, are recruiting pilots from Australia. American Airlines sells bus tickets for some short routes.

But some airline executives warn that it could take years to rectify the shortcoming.

“The shortage of pilots for the industry is real, and most airlines will simply not be able to implement their capacity plans because there are simply not enough pilots, at least not for the next five or more years,” said United Airlines CEO Scott. Kirby said on a quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimated that at the United regional airlines he is currently working with, about 150 aircraft have been suspended due to a shortage of pilots.

The roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic has stopped hiring pilots as training and licensing have slowed. Airlines handed out early retirement packages to thousands of pilots and other employees to cut bills when travel demand fell in the midst of the crisis.

“I think I’m on top,” said one former captain of a major U.S. airline who took out an early retirement package in 2020.

Now airlines are desperate to hire and train pilots, but the rush may take too long to avoid flight cuts.

Major U.S. airlines are trying to hire more than 12,000 pilots together this year alone, more than double the previous annual hiring record, according to Keith Darby, a pilot pay consultant and retired Captain United.

The shortage is particularly acute in regional carriers that feed the hubs of large airlines from small towns. Despite the fact that these airlines have returned bonuses for hiring and maintenance, the pay there is lower than in the main, and they are aggressively recruiting from these smaller carriers.

Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, which flies to the United States and United, lost nearly $ 43 million in the last quarter due to reduced flights.

“We have never understood this level of destruction,” said Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “If we don’t fly our planes, we lose money. You’ve seen our quarterly figures.”

According to Ornstein, Mesa takes about 120 days to replace the pilot, who warns in two weeks to switch to another airline.

“We could use 200 pilots right now,” he said.

Some carriers, such as Frontier and regional airline SkyWest, are recruiting pilots from Australia on special visas to alleviate the shortage, but those numbers are small compared to their overall ranks and hiring goals.

Regional carrier Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, last month asked the U.S. government to allow pilots to fly on airlines with 750 hours, half of the 1,500 needed now if they pass the carrier’s training program. Exceptions to the 1,500-hour rule already exist, for example, for pilots trained in the U.S. military and those attending two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

Family members of the victims of the Colgan Air 3407 crash in 2009, the last fatal crash of a commercial airline in the U.S., declined the offer. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and there was a so-called 1,500-hour rule aimed at providing pilot experience.

According to people familiar with Graham’s plans, Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., is considering introducing legislation into Congress that could raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots to at least 67 from the current age of 65. According to the Regional Airlines Association, about a third of qualified pilots in the United States are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the country’s airlines pilots reach retirement age within five years.

Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Growth has stopped

The shortage of pilots and other workers has forced airlines to rethink their growth plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are among the carriers that have recently reduced capacity.

SkyWest, for its part, told the Department of Transportation that it plans to suspend service in 29 small towns that the government subsidizes through the Essential Air Service.

Service cuts could isolate small U.S. cities, but Darby, a pilot payment consultant, said it could mean opening up to smaller competitors that are independent of regional airlines to the same extent as large network airlines.

“If they don’t fly, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.

One of the biggest obstacles to attracting new pilots is the cost of training. While the salaries of captains of wide-body companies in large airlines can exceed $ 350,000 a year, it takes years to qualify.

At ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, it costs about $ 92,000 for a seven-month full-time program to obtain initial licenses. It can then take pilots about 18 months or more to accumulate enough hours for flights, often training student pilots or sometimes waving banners near beaches.

“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. – You can’t just make someone come down from the street.

In December, United began training its first students at its own United Aviate Academy flight school in Goodyear, Arizona, with the goal of training 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says it wants half of that number to be women or men of color. The company covers the cost of training pilots until they receive their private pilot licenses, which it estimates are about $ 17,000 per student.

Other carriers have turned to low-interest loans or other initiatives to ease the financial burden for students.

“There’s no quick fix,” Darby said.

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