Monday, December 02, 2013

Airline-Pilot Shortage Arrives Ahead of Schedule: Pilot Retirements and New Rules on Training and Rest Hurt More Than Expected

The Wall Street Journal

 By Susan Carey and Jack Nicas

Feb. 3, 2014 8:15 p.m. ET

A shortage of qualified pilots has hit U.S. airlines sooner and more severely than expected, leading the airlines to accelerate hiring and cut some service.

The shortage flows from both a long-anticipated wave of pilot retirements and recently enacted rules that require an increase in training for new pilots and more rest for existing aviators at passenger airlines.

Regional airlines—which offer meager starting pay and tend to lose pilots to major carriers—have so far been affected the most, but that is having knock-on effects at the big airlines, which rely on their smaller cousins to ferry passengers on shorter routes.

The problems are evident in recent announcements from two U.S. airlines at opposite ends of the spectrum. Great Lakes Aviation Ltd , a 32-year-old carrier based in Cheyenne, Wyo., says it suspended flights to six small cities in the Upper Midwest on Saturday "due to the severe industrywide pilot shortage and its relative acute impact."

The airline is the sole carrier on those routes, which include such towns as Jamestown, N.D., and Mason City, Iowa. It said it hopes to resume flights when it can "rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service."

Meanwhile, United Continental Holdings Inc. said Saturday that it plans to cut 60% of its flights from its Cleveland hub by June. Big airlines have been shutting their smallest hubs for financial reasons for years, and United blamed the decision partly on weak demand in Cleveland, which it said hasn't been profitable in more than a decade.

But United also said regional-airline partners "are beginning to have difficulty flying their schedules due to reduced new-pilot availability." The shortage has forced United "to reduce [regional-airline] flying in our most unprofitable markets, which unfortunately are out of Cleveland," Chief Executive Jeff Smisek said in an employee memo.

"Communities large and small will lose air service due to the shortage of pilots," added Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association trade group. While the RAA has raised concerns for the past two years, he said, the problem "has happened much sooner and much more significantly than anyone predicted."

Under congressional mandate, the Federal Aviation Administration began in August requiring most newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of prior flight experience, up from the previous minimum of 250 hours. The rule raised the costs and time necessary to train new aviators. An additional FAA rule that took effect last month gave passenger-airline pilots more rest, requiring carriers to hire about 5% more pilots to maintain current service levels.

Meanwhile, thousands of senior pilots at major airlines are hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65 years old because of heavy hiring in the 1980s and relatively thin hiring over the past decade. Those airlines are hiring pilots away from the regional carriers, which in turn are struggling to find new recruits with adequate experience.

Mr. Cohen said that in the six months since the pilot-training rules took effect, it has become clear that the regional airlines' "ability to continue to fly [their] schedules will be a challenge." Students who just graduated from aviation colleges "now need to go spend the next two years flying around in circles" to build up 1,500 hours, he said.

Kit Darby, a retired pilot who consults on pilot-hiring trends, said the airline industry neared a pilot shortage in 2000 and again in 2007, but drops in demand after the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 recession delayed the problem. Now, he said, with demand healthy and airlines expanding, the new rest and training rules "pretty much guarantee a shortage."

Mr. Darby forecasts 2,650 pilot retirements at major airlines in 2020, compared with 560 retirements in 2012. In response, big carriers are already recalling furloughed pilots and stepping up hiring.

United said last fall that it intended to recall nearly 600 furloughed pilots, in part to replace the roughly 330 pilots who are retiring each year—a rate the airline expects to increase soon. Delta Air Lines Inc. has already recalled all its furloughed aviators who want to return, and it said it plans to add about 50 pilots a month through early this year and then take 20 a month through September.

Neil Roghair, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 8,800 American Airlines pilots, estimates that half of American's pilots will leave the company in the next eight to 10 years. The union expects 25 pilots to retire each month by 2018 and 60 to 70 to retire each month in the early part of the next decade. "We'll have to hire 100 pilots a month to keep up," said Mr. Roghair. American and US Airways merged in December to form American Airlines Group Inc. The average American pilot is 53 years old, and US Airways pilots are a similar age.

American has said it expects to need to hire 1,500 new pilots over the next five years to make up for retirements, training demands and its fleet renewal. A spokesman said the airline received 10,000 applications for those jobs in just six weeks, including 1,000 from its own regional partner, highlighting how easy it is for the major airlines to poach pilots.

Mr. Darby said regional airlines have boosted pilot recruitment, including offering $5,000-to-$10,000 signing bonuses. Despite that, starting annual pay at most remains low, often $16,000 to $25,000—a bitter pill for a pilot who has paid $75,000 to $150,000 to be trained.

He also said some regional airlines are hiring candidates they would previously have ruled out because of résumé flaws such as criminal convictions, bad grades and training failures. "There are still people with backgrounds they won't hire," he said. "But [airlines] are taking a lot longer look at some and hiring some people they previously wouldn't have."

John Thomas, head of the aviation practice at L.E.K. Consulting, said the airline industry will need to make bigger changes to address the problem. "They will have to own the problem that traditionally has fallen on other parts of the industry," such as offering company-sponsored training programs to young aviators, as some Asian and European airlines already do.

Some in the industry have argued for more flexibility within the FAA's 1,500-hour rule. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testified to Congress last month that the agency "has struck the appropriate balance" on flexibility by allowing military pilots and college graduates who majored in aviation to be eligible to fly a commercial passenger plane with fewer hours of experience.

The pilot shortage isn't restricted to the U.S. airline industry. The U.S. Air Force said it projects it will have a shortage of 400 fighter pilots within three years. Last year, the Air Force boosted fighter-pilot salaries to try to attract more pilots, and it may consider a similar program this year, a spokeswoman said.



 Pilot shortage hits regional airlines on 'unprecedented' demand: Estimates show need for 40,000 to cope with growth in Gulf's aviation sector; up to 500,000 pilots needed globally 

Abu Dhabi: The demand for pilots in the Middle East is soaring after estimates showed that 40,000 will be needed over the next 20 years, mainly because of recent orders of over 500 aircraft by some of the leading airlines in the region.

Abdullah Al Hammadi, the manager for the Pilot and National Cadet Pilot Program at Emirates Airlines, said earlier forecasts of the shortage had come two years ago but figures are continuing to increase.

“They rang the bell a long time back but no one was listening because we could not see [the shortage] but now we can see it in China,” Al Hammadi said. “The shortage has already come to life in China where they started grounding aircraft because they don’t have pilots... and now we can feel the shortage coming to us.”

He added: “Twenty or 30 years back we had a lot of pilots from the military who moved into [commercial] aviation, but now we don’t find those pilots so that’s another worry. Who will fill up that gap?”

500,000 pilots needed

Al Hammadi said pilot training globally has not significantly improved over the past 60 years to cope with technological changes in aircrafts. The result is having to invest in training — a process that typically takes about four years before pilots can fly the likes of a Boeing 777.

He suggested changes in the current pilot-training curriculum so pilots can fly larger planes directly without having to go through the system of earning hours.

Discussing Emirates’ strategy to overcome the shortage, Al Hammadi said they will open a flight academy for pilots in 2015. The academy will be able to take up to 600 pilots and will be located in Dubai.

With the growth in the aviation sector in the region, he forecast that the shortage will only grow over the next few years.

Other airlines shared a similar view, citing a global demand for pilots.

A statement by Air Arabia said: “The Middle East region is leading the world in terms of new aircraft orders and as a result, more pilots will be in need. At Air Arabia, we have taken necessary measures to serve our long-term need for pilots and will be recruiting more pilots as we receive more aircraft in the years to come.”

Air Arabia has already invested in establishing a flight academy, which is up and running in Sharjah.

“This step comes in place to cater to the increasing demand for pilots,” the statement said. “In addition, such step will create more job opportunities for the local talents available in the UAE.”

In conferences held during the Dubai airshow last week, experts from the aviation industry warned of the shortage, saying that the Middle East is down by 65 per cent compared to the demand for pilots regionally.

However, the Middle East is not alone in this hurdle. Boeing reported that there will be a need for almost 500,000 pilots globally over the next 20 years. Meanwhile, experts cited 14,000 pilots as the biggest number ever recruited into the industry on an annual basis.

Boeing’s Current Market Outlook 2013–2032 report described the demand for personnel to fly and maintain airplanes as ‘unprecedented’.

“Growth of Middle Eastern aviation outpaced the global average and will continue to do so, supported by a variety of growth strategies,” the report said.