Sunday, May 21, 2017

Editorial: Pilot shortage threatens smaller airports

Things seem to be looking up, up and away for the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (KROA). American Airlines recently added a second weekday flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, plus a Saturday flight where previously there wasn’t one.

In all, the number of American Airlines flights between Roanoke and New York has doubled, from six a week to 12 a week.

That’s a good thing, right? (Hint: The correct answer is “yes.”) One of the most frequent complaints about the region is its lack of air service, which is a function of that pesky thing called the free market. Airlines are not municipal utilities. They’re for-profit companies. They’ll send planes where they think they can make the most money and cut flights where they can’t.

If you want more flights out of Roanoke, the best thing you can do is . . . fly out of Roanoke, to show market demand. That’s an easy argument to make in theory; somewhat harder to carry out in practice if the immediate effect is paying more than you would if you drove to Greensboro, North Carolina.

That’s a topic for another day, though. Instead, today we look at a looming problem that could bring flights to Roanoke down to earth: The nation — indeed, the world — is facing a shortage of pilots.

We’ll get to the reasons why shortly, but here’s why this is an issue that should concern not just the Roanoke Valley, but smaller communities around the country: If airlines have to cut routes because they don’t have enough pilots, they’ll staff the routes that make the most money and cut the ones that don’t. That’s good news for the New York-to-Los Angeles route, not so good for Roanoke-to-anywhere.

This isn’t an imaginary issue: Last year, 24 flights scheduled to fly out of Roanoke were cancelled because weren’t crews available, up from 13 the year before, according to data supplied by the airport. It’s harder to tell how many flights into Roanoke were cancelled for the same reason, but there were at least 14 — and possibly more.

Now, for the bigger picture: Why is there a pilot shortage? Keep in mind there’s a shortage coming for lots of professions — a consequence of the baby boomers moving into retirement, and a smaller generation coming along behind them. Some businesses are warning we need more welders; the aviation industry is warning we need more pilots.

“The major airlines are retiring pilots at a rate of 18,000 over the next few years,” says Travis Williams, the chief flight instructor at Averett University in Danville (hold your question on why Averett has such a position; we’ll come back to it). “That’s approximately how many pilots there are at the regional levels. All those pilots in the regionals, they’re going to move up to the majors and that’s going to leave a lot of empty seats at the regionals.”

There are lots of other reasons driving this pilot shortage besides sheer demography:

• It’s harder nowadays to get a pilot’s license. The Federal Aviation Administration has raised the requirements for first officers on commercial flights to have logged 1,500 hours of flying time. Previously, the FAA required only 250 hours of flight time. The FAA made the change following the investigation into the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo that killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground; some argue that the 1,500-hour was an overreaction. In any case, it’s slowed the creation of new pilots.

• There’s more competition for existing pilots. The growth of Asian economies has spurred a big demand for pilots there, too. That Boeing projection of a demand for 617,000 new pilots? It predicts that 40 percent of those will be needed in Asia. Finally . . .

• The recession cut the number of people entering aviation for one simple reason: It’s expensive to learn how to fly. Some flight schools simply closed — that whole free market thing again.

All that goes under the heading of “bad news.” Now comes the good news. Something’s being done to address the pilot shortage — and some of that is happening not far from us.

There are three colleges in Virginia that now have aviation programs: Averett College, Hampton University and Liberty University.

Averett and Hampton are the oldest, both dating to 1985. Liberty’s is, not surprisingly, the biggest. They all have one thing in common: They’re growing.

Averett averaged about 40 students for most of its history; in the last three years it’s grown to more than 70 students. “Now younger people are starting to realize there is a high demand for pilots and what better time to get into aviation,” Williams says.

Liberty had a minor in aviation going back to the ‘70s, says James Malloy, dean of Liberty’s School of Aeronautics. The school was on the verge of shutting down the program in 2002 for lack of interest when then-chancellor Jerry Falwell Sr. decided to go in the opposite direction: Make it bigger. The school started with four students and a rented airplane in 2002. Now, it has 456 students on campus and a fleet of 28 aircraft that Liberty owns outright. Liberty’s even bought an airport — the New London Airport in Bedford County.

Liberty also has an online program that connects out-of-town students with flight schools in different parts of the country. Regional airlines typically don’t require a college degree, but the majors do, so Liberty sees a lot of regional pilots taking its online program to get their degree so they can move up.

It’s somewhat hard to compare numbers: Hampton averages 50-60 aviation students but only about 12 are in the pilot training program. Those 70 Averett students are all potential pilots; Liberty’s 456 on-campus students include 337 on a pilot track, with others training for drones or aviation maintenance or other aviation fields.

They all have one thing in common, though: Airlines now show up on campus to recruit their students. “We literally have recruiters all the time,” Malloy says. Students typically have jobs waiting before they graduate. And that’s not all: “Now airlines are coming with signing bonuses,” Malloy says. “They’re giving them all kinds of incentives. That’s all a result of the demand.”

So maybe that whole free market thing will work things out, after all. In the meantime, if you know someone interested in being a pilot, feel free to give them some career advice. You’d be doing all of us a favor.

Original article can be found here: http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/editorial

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