Low pay, high academic debt and quality of life issues dissuade people from pursuing a career as an airline pilot, speakers said June 25 during a day-long conference organized by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Those factors contribute to a pilot shortage, although the extent of the shortage is disputed.
ALPA claims that it has more than 700 members in North America who are currently on furlough from their airlines. The association contests that a widespread pilot shortage exists, characterizing the situation as a “pilot pay shortage” that prevents pilot candidates from entering the industry through regional airlines. Lacking career advancement, some working pilots depart for better-paying foreign airlines or other jobs.
The average starting pay for a first officer at a regional airline is $23,000, according to ALPA. The five lowest-paying airlines—SkyWest, Mesa, Republic/Shuttle/Chautauqua, ExpressJet and GoJet—combined operate more than half of all regional flights each day, it says. Meanwhile, candidates entering the field by the academic route face excessive debt, having spent $150,000 to $200,000 for a university degree and flight training.
“Why are some airlines having trouble filling their flight decks?” ALPA president Tim Canoll asked to start the conference. “We all know that, indeed, some airlines are experiencing difficulties in hiring [and] retaining qualified pilots. It comes down to a simple lesson in economics. When airlines continue to offer an average starting salary of $23,000 a year, the market is going to respond.”
Canoll offered that major airlines have reduced flights, not because of a pilot shortage but because of a focus on “capacity discipline…in an attempt to maximize profits.” He said industry opponents of strict new Federal Aviation Administration pilot training and qualification requirements have “fabricated” a shortage. The U.S. offers ample opportunity for aspiring pilots through universities, flight schools and the military, producing more pilots than the number of airline jobs available, he said.
“These and other facts tell us that there really isn’t a pilot shortage right now, but with upcoming retirements and increasing airline fleets, it’s certainly an area of potential concern,” Canoll said. “And it’s clear that there is a pilot pay shortage. Some pilots are simply not willing to accept the compensation packages offered by some airlines, especially when there is not a clear career path for them to follow at that carrier.”
Alex Marren, chief operating officer of Atlanta-based ExpressJet Airlines, a SkyWest subsidiary, offered the regional airline perspective. ExpressJet operates a fleet of Bombardier CRJ 200/700/900 and Embraer 135/145 regional jets on scheduled flights as American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.
“We definitely are seeing a pilot shortage, if you define a pilot shortage as more and more challenges in terms of attracting and hiring talent into the profession,” Marren said. “When I started in aviation in the seventies and eighties, we called it the ‘glamour days.’ In those days, it was the buzz, it was the place to go to, it was fascinating, it was growing, it was exciting. Now people don’t necessarily have quite the same view of the aviation industry.”
Marren said the pilot gap has caused some carriers to reduce their number of flights, although there has been some “upgaging” to larger aircraft with more seats. “This is in an environment, certainly with low fuel prices, where you would actually be seeing the opposite if it weren’t for somewhat of a constraint that we have now in how many pilots we have in the pipeline,” she said. “The major carriers are asking us, how much can you fly for us? Certain carriers [are] postponing the number of flights that they can handle for our major partners until they can get their classes filled and people through the training.”