Saturday, December 27, 2014

Looming pilot shortage threatens regional airlines

FARGO -- The adage "What goes up must come down," is coming home to roost for commercial aviation.

For decades, the industry's consistent story was one of large numbers of pilots competing for very few open jobs.

Today, airlines — particularly regional carriers — are having trouble filling cockpits with qualified pilots and the problem only promises to get worse, according to William Swelbar, a Washington-based consultant and a research engineer at MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.

"By 2017, it (the pilot shortage) will be a crisis and very difficult to repair," said Swelbar, who is also executive director of the Regional Air Service Alliance, a coalition of airports, state aviation departments and other groups that have an interest in the future of small community air service.

Swelbar said there is scant data right now to back up his contention that a major pilot shortage is imminent, but he said signs of trouble are starting to show.

"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests regional airlines are struggling to fill the (cockpit) seats that are coming vacant," Swelbar said. "It is air service death by a thousand frequency cuts."

Jim Higgins doesn't need convincing.

An associate professor at the University of North Dakota's Department of Aviation, the largest aviation school of its kind in the country, Higgins warns that a major pilot crunch is coming at a time when airlines are experiencing the most profitable traffic they've ever seen.

He said that growth will only accelerate the pilot shortage while intensifying its effects.

"The conundrum is very apparent, it's very easy to see," said Higgins, adding that while enrollment in UND's flight program has been stable in recent years, the same can't be said for programs elsewhere in the country.

"A lot of schools flat out closed," he said.

Higgins and other experts say a number of reasons are behind the growing pilot dearth, including an unprecedented wave of retirements.

Another factor cited is a growing awareness among would-be pilots of the cost of education and the relatively low pay commercial pilots can expect to see in the early years of their careers.

Pilot training can cost $125,000 to $150,000 and take up to seven years to complete.

And while pilots with a regional carrier can earn $60,000 a year by their fifth year on the job, starting salaries can be less than $25,000.

Many find the cost/benefit analysis discouraging, according to Swelbar, who said a new federal law that sets the minimum flight time requirement for commercial pilots at 1,500 hours — up from 250 hours — is another factor weighing on pilot numbers.

Congress imposed the change in 2013 following a 2009 commuter crash that was blamed on pilot error.

While the new law aims at improving pilot competency, it might have the opposite effect, according to Shawn Dobberstein, executive director of the Fargo Airport Authority, who worries a growing pilot shortage may lead to reduced service for airports like Hector International.

When it comes to the new rule on flying hours, Dobberstein said by the time pilots reach 1,500 hours and take commercial airline jobs, their skills won't be as sharp as they would be had they started working when they were fresh out of school.

Higgins goes further, asserting the rule is forcing airlines to hire pilots they never would have hired in the past simply because the pool of quality candidates is limited.

"In my opinion, it's absolutely a potential for catastrophe down the road," Higgins said.

Swelbar said changing the 1,500-hours rule would be politically difficult, but he said one way to mitigate the negative impacts would be to grant student pilots additional flying time credit if they graduate from quality flying schools like UND.

Swelbar said he worries the growing pilot shortage won't be addressed until it becomes so pronounced airlines begin pulling out of markets altogether because they are unable to maintain routes.

"Then it's going to get the attention of every lawmaker on Capitol Hill," Swelbar said.

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