The faster-than-expected rebound in travel after the COVID-19 pandemic erased one critical question that airlines faced: “Will people want to fly again?”
Now, a new question is emerging: “Will there be anyone to fly them there?”
Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines are among carriers aggressively searching for new pilots, both hiring regional pilots eager to make the jump to bigger planes with bigger paychecks and snagging highly coveted students still in flight school by dangling hundreds of thousands of dollars in sign-on bonuses and retention payments.
Still, those new pilots are arriving fast enough. Regional carrier SkyWest Airlines, selling tickets through United Airlines, cited a shortage of pilots while petitioning the government to drop service to 29 cities, such as Victoria, Texas. Southwest Airlines this month said it’s cutting April and May schedules due to staffing shortages.
The beginning of a long-foretold pilot shortage is here and it may hinder a travel industry that’s already struggling to emerge from two years of pandemic pain.
With the pandemic pushing thousands of pilots to retire early, airlines are facing a massive gap in the availability of people to fly commercial airliners. Aviation consulting firm Oliver Wyman is predicting there will be a shortage of about 19,000 pilots globally by the end of 2022, a number that will only grow to about 60,000 in 2029 as the number of Baby Boomer pilots who earned their wings in the military are forced to retire at 65.
“It’s already hitting and the regional airlines are going to bear an unfair burden,” said Geoff Murray, an airline consultant with Oliver Wyman’s global aviation team. “We’ll see that reflected with the elimination of service, especially to small cities.”
Regional airlines are a keystone of the country’s flying ecosystem, connecting the smallest destinations to major hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Chicago and Denver. Regionals will get hit the hardest because the country’s mainline carriers, including American, Southwest, United and Delta, pay much better than regional airlines and usually treat those smaller companies as farm teams to fill their big league rosters of pilots.
That takes its toll if there aren’t enough pilots to replace the ones moving up to the majors. About 63% of the nation’s airports are served only by regional carriers such as Envoy (flying American Eagle branded planes), SkyWest, Mesa and others, according to the Regional Airline Association. About 41% of all scheduled flights in the US are on regionals.
‘A timing issue’
At Envoy’s headquarters in Irving, a few miles from American Airlines’ corporate campus, ground school instructor Mark Stewart spent an afternoon walking students through the complicated flight controls and operational procedures needed to get new pilots up to speed on flying a commercial aircraft, even after they had spent 1,000 to 1,500 hours in the air during flight school.
After about three months of training in classrooms and flight simulators, pilots are sent out as first officers and paired with more experienced captains to fly from cities like El Paso and Laredo to DFW International Airport in 44- to 76-seat regional jets.
Envoy and American Airlines have spent more than a decade making sure new hire classes are full. In recent months, airlines have had to work even harder.
“We do have a timing issue right now with the fact that the industry has seen such growth,” said Captain Ric Wilson, Envoy’s vice president of flight operations. “We’re losing a lot of our captains.”
Just this month, the carrier pledged to give flight school students another $15,000 to commit to joining one of their regional airlines after graduating and getting rated to fly commercial planes.
Between student pilot programs and flow-through programs for sticking with the Fort Worth-based carrier, potential pilots are looking at more than $200,000 in recruitment and retention bonuses in their first five to seven years of flying, more than enough to cover the six- figure flight training costs.
Try finding that level of financial help in other occupations, even in high-demand, high-skill fields like surgeons and nursing where graduates are left on their own to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
But creating new captains, the lead pilots on a two-person team flying a jet, isn’t as easy as putting the more experienced flyer in the left seat. At bigger airlines, it takes years to work up to captain and most pilots are highly experienced by the time they break into the upper half of seniority needed to get the rank. Regionals usually require pilots to hit about 1,000 hours of flying time.
In recent months, as the industry added flights at a rapid rate, bigger mainline airlines are poaching captains from those feeder regionals. Without captains, there’s no one to fly with first officers. Without a pair, airplanes don’t take off and first officers don’t get hours to become captains.
“There is a bit of a pinch, a timing issue right now. We’re losing this group of captains and we don’t have pilots to replace them,” Wilson said. “It’s not because we can’t hire them. It’s just they can’t get their qualifications quick enough to become captains.”
During 2020 and early last year, airlines such as Envoy and American shut off new pilot hiring and training classes, causing a gap of 15 to 18 months when no entry-level first officers were hired to start gaining experience. The earliest pilots who had their training delayed would just be approaching the captain level now, two years later.
Dallas-based Southwest is putting more money into training, too. On March 18, the company announced that it’s creating a pilot pipeline program with two regional carriers, SkyWest and Advanced Airlines.
Southwest expects to hire more than 1,000 pilots this year. The company also restarted work on its pilot training center in Dallas, a $13 million project that will add eight new simulators and help push pilots through training more quickly.
Getting students off the ground
Taylor Ingle, 23, started training at US Aviation Academy in Denton in August and expects to take out about $60,000 in loans for the two-year training program. She’s hoping to zoom through the program as fast as she can and save money working in the school’s admissions department.
After she gets her commercial pilot license, she’ll still need to earn about 650 hours working as a flight instructor.
“I had considered going to the military, but I don’t think that’s the right path for me,” said Ingle, who got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh before deciding on flying while working as an intern at an airport. “One concern is the cost of flight training, everyone knows it can get pretty pricey.”
If she sticks with one of the airline feeder programs, she could just more than $200,000 in grants and bonuses, more than enough to pay for the cost of schooling. She’ll have her pick of airlines to choose from — United and Delta investing in cadet programs, too — along with a growing number of cargo carriers and international airlines.
The industry’s pilot shortage dates back decades when most Baby Boomer pilots were hired out of the military in the 1980s and left carriers with little worry for years to come. But then airlines went through a crisis in 2013 when the Federal Aviation Administration increased the number of flight hours required for a student to earn an air transport pilot license, the certification needed to fly commercial jets.
Costs for training were already high, around $100,000 for two to four years of school. The increase in hours came after the deadly Colgan Air crash in 2009 near Buffalo that killed 49 people and investigations determined that pilots didn’t have sufficient training.
Students were suddenly forced to spend another 500 to 750 hours gaining experience, usually as flight instructors. Even after that, pay was low for starting pilots, sometimes as little as $22,000 a year.
That’s when airlines started to create pathway programs for student pilots, giving them cash assistance and the promise of a job once they graduated. Regional airlines increased pay, now about $50,000 to start, and the number of students increased.
But the industry is still a high-cost, high-reward undertaking, said Murray, who studies pilot demand at Oliver Wyman. He’s also a flight instructor.
The average pilot at Ameican Airlines made about $249,000 in 2020, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Airline Data Project. Even fifth- or sixth-year Envoy pilots make about $108,000, according to Addison-based pilot trainer Thrust Flight, one of Envoy’s partner schools.
“You are laying out that cash in training with the hope that those jobs will still be there when they are done,” Murray said. “Kids will look at me and ask what happens if there’s another 9/11 and the whole industry crumbles.”