Airlines, Pilots Disagree on Pilot Shortage

 - April 19, 2023, 12:49 PM
Wednesday's testimony in the U.S. Congress reflected differences in opinion on the existence of a pilot shortage.(Photo: Pixabay)

The state of pilot supply came under scrutiny in the House Aviation Subcommittee on Wednesday as industry stakeholders who testified disagreed about whether a shortage exists and whether measures such as raising the mandatory retirement age for airlines would help.

Regional Airline Association president and CEO Faye Malarkey Black in testimony called the situation “devastating” and said that despite soaring passenger demand, the shortage is decimating small community air service. She said the shortage has been growing for decades, with a chief issue stemming from the FAA’s slow action on advancing pilot training standards.

“The impacts of the pilot shortage are real,” she said. “Currently, more than 500 regional aircraft are parked, and those aircraft remaining in service are underutilized. The impact has been felt by 308 airports or almost 72 percent of all U.S. airports.”

Calling the situation particularly acute among airline captains, she said the fact that 50 percent of the pilot workforce would be forced to retire in the next 15 years will exacerbate the problem.

“Thousands of willing, healthy, and skilled pilots who would like to continue working are being forced out of the profession at age 65, to the detriment of air service across the country,” said Black. Despite the increase in pilot certificates, there still are not enough qualified and interested people to hire, she added.

Last year marked a record for new pilots qualified—9,491—but the number "fell far short of the 13,128 hired by just one subset of the airline industry last year,” she stressed. “It is vitally important that pilot production in 2022 be put in the proper context.”

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) released data in advance of Wednesday’s hearing showing that the FAA has certified 2,658 new airline pilots in just the first three months of this year and 63,932 since 2013, when stricter qualification rules took effect (the so-called 1,500-hour rule). The airlines filled about 40,000 positions at the same time.

“Over the past 10 years, the United States has not only reduced airline passenger fatalities but also produced more than enough pilots to meet airline hiring demand,” said ALPA president Jason Ambrosi. “The groups that continue the flood of misinformation and misleading data are only interested in one thing: manufacturing a crisis to lower aviation safety standards and increase their bottom line.”

ALPA blames the decision of the airlines to bump to smaller equipment, park aircraft, and furlough pilots during the pandemic for creating the current situation. When demand returned and airlines rehired pilots, they needed retraining, creating a backlog. Ambrosi told lawmakers he believed enough supply exists to satisfy demand and cautioned against raising the pilot age on the grounds that it would put the U.S. out of sync with international standards.

Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), noted that the number of individuals qualified to become airline pilots increased between 2017 and 2022 and enrollments in training schools likewise increased. Forecasters project an increase in pilot supply, she testified, but “the extent to which projected supply would exceed or fall short of industry’s demand for pilots is unknown, given uncertainties surrounding future demand.”

Hiring and wage data indicate a strong demand for pilots, and regional airlines in particular have faced difficulties meeting that demand. Airlines have increased pay and the FAA is taking steps to support workforce development, she noted, but it is unclear whether these steps will be enough.