Pilot shortage looms for charter operators

 - February 7, 2008, 11:37 AM

Although the market for charter and fractional ownership is still strong in the U.S., operators might soon face a shortage of qualified pilots and maintenance technicians.
“What comes with the demand for aircraft is a demand for…pilots,” said Napo Hohn, CEO of PrivatAir. “But there are only so many 4,500- to 5,000-hour pilots on the market for an ever increasing number of aircraft. This is going to be one of the big challenges for the industry.”

Bob Seidel, senior vice president and general manager of the U.S. segment of Jet Aviation Business Jets, said the problem will be most evident within the next five to 10 years as baby boomers and former military pilots retire. “There isn’t enough backfilling in this industry of fresh young pilots,” he said. “Over the next five years, there won’t be enough pilots to fly these airplanes or enough technicians to maintain them. There aren’t enough people going into school to do those things.”

And the real problem, Seidel said, is that it’s too late to change the situation.
“It takes the typical pilot a year to accumulate 400 or 500 hours of flight time,” he said. “Our minimum standard for a captain is 3,500 hours. That’s seven years of flying. If a pilot hasn’t already started flying a jet today, it will be seven years before he qualifies to be a Jet Aviation captain.”

Jim Christiansen, president of NetJets Aviation, said that although NetJets isn’t currently experiencing a shortage of pilots, the supply is a concern for everyone in the industry. “The military is not generating pilots like it used to, and you don’t see a whole lot of pilots coming through the civilian ranks,” he said, adding that many schools are finding it difficult to hire and maintain instructors.

Frank Ayers, chairman of the flight-training department at Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University, said the problem isn’t that people aren’t entering flight schools. “Enrollment numbers are stronger than they’ve ever been,” he said. The problem, he said, is that charter operators, specifically, “are on the lower end of the food chain.”

“Our students are leaving here and being snapped up by the regional airlines,” he said. “They’re signing agreements [with] the international and major airlines.” Last year there were 6,103 students enrolled in undergraduate programs at Embry-Riddle. Of those, 2,117 were enrolled in the aeronautical science and aeronautics programs, and 178 were enrolled in the aviation maintenance science program.

Kit Darby, president of Atlanta-based Air Inc., said there are pilot shortages across the board, even among the regional and major airlines. He disputes the idea that students are being “snapped up by the regional airlines.” Classes at the regional airlines are only 50 percent filled, he said, and most airlines have lowered their minimums drastically to attract more pilots. Before 9/11, most airlines required at least 1,500 hours total time. Within the last year, he said, “minimums have taken a nosedive,” and some companies are hiring pilots with as little as 250 hours total time. “Shortages are already here,” he said. “We are flat going to run out of pilots.”

Darby added that the introduction of the VLJ will exacerbate the problem. Each VLJ will require crews of three to five pilots, and with an estimated 5,000 VLJs entering the market, “That’s a huge demand for pilots.” William Herp, president and CEO of Concord, Mass.-based Linear Air, recently announced, for example, that the company plans to hire 1,000 pilots over the next five years to accommodate a fleet of 300 Eclipse 500s by the beginning of the next decade.

The need for pilots is going to cause such a strain on the system that in addition to lowering minimum requirements, companies might be forced to hire pilots without commercial pilot certificates and provide on-the-job training. That practice is already used overseas, and its adoption in the U.S. might be right around the corner, Darby said. “This is an emergency situation, and it’s all happening at once,” he said.

Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said the practice of lowering minimum standards is “worrying” and is evidence of a strain on the system. “It’s time to ring the warning bell,” he said at the FAA International Safety Forum in November. “This is an issue that will face all of us, so we must work together to deliver a global solution that supports improved safety and sustainable growth with better trained pilots.”

IATA plans to address the issue with a training and qualification initiative designed to raise awareness of what Bisignani called a “crisis” within the industry. The goals of the initiative will include coordinating a global approach to finding a solution, maintaining and improving essential standards, increasing the pool of pilot candidates and improving training standards. Bisignani added that developing a global standard will be one of the foremost goals. “Today, there are no global standards for training concepts or regulation, not even a shared standard between EASA and the FAA. This must change,” he said.

The passage of H.R.4343 in December, which increased the mandatory retirement age of U.S. pilots from 60 to 65, might also help to relieve some of the strain many operators are facing–at least within the Part 121 community. Darby estimates that about 1,000 to 2,000 pilots will choose to stay with their current airline jobs now that the age requirement has been increased. He added, however, that the number of pilots the airlines retain “isn’t going to mean much” because it will still leave the airlines short of their total requirement.

Additionally, retired pilots who might have considered returning to the airlines will have to start at the bottom of the ladder. “They won’t get to enjoy or exercise their seniority,” he said, meaning that many will choose not to return. And not everyone is pleased with the new rule, he added. Younger pilots, for example, won’t advance as quickly if senior pilots choose to work for another five years.

Toby Batchelder, aircraft management sales manager for Elliott Aviation, a charter management company with four locations in the Midwest, said the new rule won’t have much effect on charter or fractional companies. “We typically see pilots choosing a path early in their career and sticking to that path,” he explained. “Some choose the career of flying commercial while others choose private aviation.” However, Darby said that the supply of pilots who turn to private aviation after their retirement from the airlines will now decrease. “That supply is going to dry up,” Darby said. “If a pilot wants to continue flying, he’s going to stay with his airline.”

More Maintenance Techs Needed
A shortage of maintenance technicians will continue to be a problem, as well. Benjamin Murray, CEO of Executive Jet Management (EJM), said the average age of A&P mechanics in the U.S. is 57. He did note, however, that the average age of mechanics at EJM is 30 to 35.

Mike Lee, vice president of courseware and maintenance business development at FlightSafety International, agreed that finding qualified maintenance techs in the coming years will be a challenge. “Do we believe there will be a shortage? Yes,” he said. “It’s been predicted for a number of years, and those predictions are now coming true.”

The answer, according to Christiansen, will be to provide a work environment that attracts the best pilots and maintenance technicians. Christiansen said NetJets has drafted a new pilot contract that will make the fractional company “one of the top tier piloting career opportunities in the industry, including the airlines.” 

Likewise, Dave Cox, director of operations for San Carlos, Calif.-based XOJet, said he feels confident that his company will be able to attract pilots. In September, the company announced that it had ordered 30 Citation Xs worth $600 million and 80 Challenger 300s, 20 firm and 60 on option, worth $1.9 billion if all options are exercised. The company hopes to hire 50 to 60 pilots within the next year, and 100 per year for the next two. “It is going to be a challenge, and there’s no doubt we’re all going to be competing,” he said. “[But] I’m confident with what we’ve built, and I hope that people will want to be a part of our organization.”