Monday, February 17, 2014

Salt Lake City, Utah: National pilot shortage has local impact

SALT LAKE CITY — A national shortage of airline pilots is hitting Utah close to home. 

The number of people going through training and entering the field of aviation nationally is declining, and has been on a steady downfall since the mid-1980s. A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek cited lower starting salaries for new pilots and tighter government regulations as major factors in the decline.

Jim Green worked as a Navy and commercial pilot for more than 30 years before he retired to teach in Utah Valley University's Aviation Science program, where he currently works as a flight instructor. He said he’s seen the effects of the pilots shortfall at all levels in the industry. 

“Boeing is predicting a worldwide shortage of nearly 500,000 pilots over the next 20 years,” Green said. “We have no idea how we are going to get those numbers.”

Green echoed the factors listed in Bloomberg for the shortfall, but said there are some deeper reasons fewer people are entering the world of flying.

“The reason starting salaries have been low is because of pure supply and demand,” Green said. “There always seemed to be enough young pilots who were willing to work for starvation wages at first in order to get the experience and hours necessary to secure a job with a major airline where the pay is much better.”

Green said today students looking to come into the industry have higher college debts to pay off and can’t afford to work in a sort of apprenticeship for a few years to get their careers started. This drives many out of the industry that would otherwise be interested.

“The idea of paying a lot for an education in aviation with the prospect of having student loans to pay off at the same time as making low wages doesn’t equate as a smart decision,” Green said.

In recent years, the national government has passed a few new laws that Green said have also hindered pilot enrollment. Public Law 111-216, which took effect last August, requires all pilots, including first officers, to log at least 1,500 hours to receive their Airline Transport Rating (ATR). An ATR was traditionally only held by captains.

“That (law) is a serious problem, because there aren't enough young co-pilots with those hours to qualify for the right seat of any airline,” Green said. “This absurd law couldn't have come at a worse time as we start to face a serious pilot shortage.”

If not corrected, Green said the current decline in pilots will create a domino effect throughout the entire aviation industry.

“The significant pilot shortage,” Green said, “is expected to last for the next 20 years, and exacerbated by PL 111-216, will cause most of the regional airlines to go out of business completely. Small cities across the nation are already seeing their air service cut, with the prospect that all air service will cease to cities smaller than 150,000 population.”

While the new law may have been passed with public safety in mind, Green said it failed to factor in the long-term consequences tighter pilot regulations would have on every area of transportation.

“The intent of Congress was to increase safety for passengers,” Green said, “but now because people will need to drive long distances to get to a major city to fly, there will actually be more deaths, because driving on our highways is more dangerous than flying.”

Green said UVU is taking strong measures to encourage prospective students to enter its aviation program and become pilots.

“Our newly updated online program is so good we are attracting students from all over the world, in fact,” Green said. “Students who take the online classes can fly locally wherever they are, and receive the FAA certification required to be licensed.”

Green said the program’s numbers are down from previous years, but the teachers and staff have been able to boost enrollment by offering a quicker route to ATR qualifications. Currently 160 students are enrolled in UVU’s aviation science program, with an additional 1,600 signed up online.

Green said he would encourage anyone interested in a career as a pilot to investigate all options and not let tougher restrictions scare them away.

“There's never been a better time to prepare to fly for a career,” Green said. “The need is great, the technology wonderful, the conditions safer than ever and the pay is only going to go up.”

He said he wouldn’t trade his lifetime in the air for anything, and would love to see eager young pilot-hopefuls experience the thrill of a career in aviation.

“I tell young people all the time, ‘You have two choices to make concerning your future career. You can either choose to work a job for a living, or you can fly.’ ” Green said. “In my opinion, there is no choice. It's the only way to go!”

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