Sunday, February 03, 2013

Wings of gold?

If a best-case scenario holds for Colton Daum and Ryan Enebo, the young pilots could find their wings layered in gold as their industry works through an aviator crunch.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's a really good thing," said Daum, 21, of Dix, Neb. He and Enebo are among graduates of the professional pilot program at Kansas State University at Salina who are eager to launch their careers.

But new rules governing commercial pilots have the industry dealing with a shortage. The shortfall gives the newbies a chance for higher pay starting out -- six-figure salaries if they're willing to move overseas -- and a quick ascent of command chains.

When the Federal Aviation Administration increases flight time in August from 700 to 900 hours to 1,500 hours just to be a co-pilot, air transportation could slow, said Kurt Barnhart, aviation department head at KSU-Salina.

It's a first whiff of what he calls a "perfect storm" that could jump-start careers.

"We'll hopefully ride the seniority wave," said Enebo, 21, from Sanger, Texas.

But for now, their careers are in a holding pattern. Both K-State graduates, Enebo and Daum are serving as flight instructors on the Salina campus, waiting for career plans to materialize while adding flight hours and hoping for an adjustment to the minimum age requirement, which is moving to 23 late this summer

Currently, a commercial pilot certificate with a multi-engine rating is all that's needed to obtain employment, Barnhart said, then the airlines set their own requirements for flight time.

Losing half the pilots

But that's changing.

"Airlines can't lower the hour requirement to fill voids. It's a hard rule, and that's really what's got it in a pinch this time," Barnhart said.

Adding to the shortage was the FAA extending the retirement age from 60 to 65 five years ago.

"In the next 10 years, we could lose almost half of our current pilots," Daum said.

It's ironic, Barnhart said, that just a few years ago, just before Enebo and Daum were underclassmen, the airlines were reeling from a glut of pilots. Go back to 2007 and 2008, and supplies were tight as the economy dipped into a recession.

"Now we're up against a problem that we kicked down the road," Barnhart said. "We have fewer people studying aviation. It's not as popular as it was, particularly due to the expense of flying and the complexity that's crept in over the years."

In-state students will invest $70,000 for their higher education and flight fees combined, Barnhart said.

New planes, more rest

Other factors have contributed.

Air carriers are buying new aircraft, he said, and some pilots are opting to retire rather than learn to fly a new plane.

Starting in January 2014, airline pilots are mandated to have more rest between flights, meaning commercial carriers are going to need more pilots to cover schedules.

"(Human resources) folks at the airlines literally have no idea where pilots are going to be coming from," Barnhart said. "American Airlines will need 400 more pilots a year just to keep up with the added rest rules."

United Airlines estimated that starting in January, it would lose one pilot every 18 hours, he said, and at American Airlines, word is 70 percent of the company's pilots will retire in 15 years; the figure was 65 percent with Delta Airlines during the same span.

"It will aggravate the situation," Barnhart said. "It could be a difficult year."

In the past two years at K-State, he said, the professional pilot student body has grown from 200 to 250. But even if that trend is the same at other universities with professional pilot programs, Barnhart can only hope that enrollment spikes will fill the void.

Pay can really shoot up

The shortage hasn't yet caused pilot wages in the United States to hit the stratosphere, but they have risen from lows of $17,000 a year for a rookie to somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000.

But as pilots gain experience, their pay grows exponentially.

"By year three, one of our graduates could be expected to make $70,000 to $80,000," Barnhart said.

Major airline pilots retire making $200,000, but fewer than four years ago, the veterans were hitting the $400,000 range.

Making the problem more difficult for domestic employers is wage competition overseas.

With minimal experience, "You can sign a three- to five-year contract to work in China for $300,000 to $500,000 a year," Barnhart said. "They're promising living arrangements and housekeeping. A lot of people are saying, 'I can live in China.' "

Living in the USA

The two Wildcat fliers aren't that eager to bolt abroad on the promise of riches.

"You just can't beat living in America. I'd probably stay over here," Daum said.

Enebo has looked into jobs in other countries, just for the income potential.

"They pay quite a bit more," he said. "I don't know about moving permanently to another country."

Regardless of where they end up getting their mail, Daum and Enebo are right now just trying to stay apprised.

The FAA is considering changing the rules to allow restricted commercial licenses for those with 1,000 hours of flight time and at least age 21. Both exceed those proposed thresholds. A ruling is expected in May or June.

"There are proposals. We would like to see some sort of collegiate training exemption, but it's pretty late in the game," Barnhart said.

It could change quickly

The young pilots are not counting on big bucks or any other perks.

"I'm very hesitant to put all of my faith in this pilot shortage," Daum said. "Everything could change at the drop of a hat. I just try to stay well-versed on this."


No comments:

Post a Comment