Student pilot Matthew Philbin completes his preflight inspection on a Cessna 172 on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University flight line. Philbin is one of more than 200 ERAU students who will graduate from the aeronautical sciences professional pilot degree program this month and help fill the pipeline of needed pilots.
For most pilots, the decision to spend a career careening through the clouds takes off with a single moment, said Matthew Philbin, a senior studying aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
For Philbin, a presentation given by a Northwest Airlines pilot to his third-grade class clinched his interest in aviation.
“Me, as a third-grader, I'm just sitting there awestruck,” Philbin said, recounting how the pilot, dressed in uniform, brought stories of destinations he had visited and of the planes he flew to life for Philbin and his classmates.
More than a decade later, Philbin is bringing his childhood dream to life as he glides through his last semester at ERAU and, after that, a position as a flight instructor.
Philbin has sky-high aspirations to join a regional airline and then a major airline as a commercial pilot, a kind of breed that, since the late 1990s, has been growing endangered.
Projections show 558,000 new commercial airline pilots will be needed globally in the next 20 years, according to American aerospace corporation Boeing Company.
Between now and about 2030, the U.S. airlines system will starve for more than 35,000 pilots, which adds up to a $4 billion training problem, said Lamar Haugaard, director of pilot development and recruiting for SeaTac, Wash.-based Horizon Air.
Haugaard, a 31-year aviation veteran who cited a 2013 study conducted by ERAU and a handful of partners, said the looming pilot shortage is an “absolutely severe” problem.
“I think it's going to be … industry-transformative severe, where as a nation we're going to have to look at alternative paths to making pilots than we've ever considered before,” Haugaard said.
Training grounds in universities like ERAU are a key element in the equation to refill the pilot pipeline, he said, as the entire U.S. aviation industry relies on students attending flight schools.
But with flight training price tags of $30,000 to $65,000 at ERAU on top of tuition, the cost is strapping student pilots as they accelerate through their coursework, though significant financial aid opportunities are available.
“It's just becoming too expensive,” Haugaard said.
NAVIGATING INDUSTRY CHANGE
The pilot shortage is the consequence of several factors, including an increase in air travel, greater affluence, a drop in oil prices and a boom in the number of people who can travel for the first time.
Nearly a decade ago, the industry's retirement age shifted from 60 to 65 after it was realized that pilots could continue to fly at an older age “commercially and safely,” said Nickolas “Dan” Macchiarella, interim dean of ERAU's College of Aviation.
By extending a number of pilots' tenure in the skies, the change delayed the impacts of the shortage, Macchiarella said, but not for long.
“We're beyond that point where the bubble of extra pilots was created because they didn't retire,” he said.
Other public policy reforms have exacerbated the shortage, as have historically low starter salaries for pilots fresh out of school.
One federal policy change, intended to “increase the professional and formal education of pilots,” Macchiarella said, rocked the aviation industry in 2013 by quadrupling the number of flying hours students at schools like ERAU must complete to achieve first officer status, from 250 hours to 1,000 hours.
Though most airlines looked to hire pilots whose airtime experience well exceeded the 250-hour threshold, “airlines could reach down and pull more pilots quickly if they needed them,” Macchiarella said.
While the impending pilot shortage has long been on the radar of airlines, extenuating circumstances have prevented action, Haugaard said. After 9/11 and the economic downturn of the early 2000s, most airlines had a surplus of pilots and started issuing furloughs, a move that continued with the change to pilot retirement standards and the downturn of 2008 and 2009.
Once the economy began to rebound, the need for more pilots started to explode.
“Almost overnight we don't have enough pilots,” Haugaard said.
TAXIING TOWARD A SOLUTION
Once an aviation student graduates and racks up enough airtime, he or she can transition into a regional airline to build experience toward the major leagues of airlines.
With the pilot shortage beginning to ripple throughout the industry, regional carriers are struggling to find enough pilots, leading them to drop service in smaller communities, Haugaard said.
Those struggles have translated into weakening bottom lines and. Regional carriers Republic Airways Holdings and SeaPort Airlines filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Both Haugaard and Macchiarella predict that major airlines will begin to absorb some of the same repercussions regional airlines already have within two years.
While many major airlines have done little to propel a solution, ERAU has been busy engaging high school students in aeronautical sciences through concurrent enrollment courses and summer academy programs. High schools are “fertile ground” for recruiting tomorrow's pilots, Macchiarella said.
The institution has also converged aviation stakeholders in campus summits to discuss how to overcome the shortage.
“There are a lot of forces at play: the confluence of thoughts between government, labor, management and then academia,” Macchiarella said. “We'll eventually produce a solution and provide the number of pilots that are required. Our perspective is that collegiate aviation is the best source, the preferred source, and we believe over time can readily meet the needs.”
On the industry side, regional carriers have significantly elevated salaries for rookie pilots so that they don't have to scrape by their first few years out of school. A year and a half ago, the average salary mark hovered in the mid-$20,000 range. It's now around $40,000.
Airline carriers have also intensified recruitment efforts by grooming relationships with flight students and feeding them into pathway programs in which they're assigned to a regional company that has a firm partnership with a major airline.
Philbin, who graduates this month, said these programs open up “a very clear pathway to an end goal.”
They also reinforce job security — a silver lining in the shortage for pilots in training.
“From the student perspective, it makes you feel like the industry is very interested in you as a candidate,” Philbin said, “and they're obviously investing a lot of time and energy to find qualified people for their operations.”
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