Saturday, July 07, 2018

Iowa airlines face growing pilot shortage: Regional airports may be first to feel the pinch

Caleb Kandel, a pilot for Jet Air Inc., conducts a preflight check Tuesday before a charter flight at the Iowa City Municipal Airport. A national pilot shortage is forecast to eventually affect all sectors of the airline industry, from large commercial flights to regional carriers to charter operations and flight training schools. 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Despite upsizing to larger planes, seeing back-to-back months of record-breaking passenger counts and expanding the airport terminal building to accommodate growth, The Eastern Iowa Airport warily is watching predictions of a severe pilot shortage.

Industry forecasts foresee the national system being short thousands of pilots in the next few years, with all sectors of the industry — commercial airlines, regional carriers, charter services and flight schools — feeling the strain of a workforce not keeping up with passenger demand.

“All the forecasts across the globe are pointing to pilot shortfalls,” said Marty Lenss, executive director of The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. “So then it kind of becomes, what’s behind that and how much of a shortfall is out there? And that’s when it gets seriously concerning for all small communities and small markets across the country.”

Michael Young (left), line manager, communicates with pilots before a charter flight takes off Tuesday from the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

Not enough pilots

Lenss said the national airline industry is expected to be short about 5,000 pilots, which will keep about 500 aircraft out of the skies, by 2021. By 2026 the shortage is forecast to reach 15,000 pilots and about 1,500 grounded planes.

Mounting federal regulations on the aviation industry, a demand for more pilots nationwide and a growing number of pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 — paired with low recruitment — all play into the pilot shortage.

Lenss said regional airlines, which manage the large majority of Iowa flights, could be the first to see significant impacts from the shortage.

Major commercial airlines are hiring regional pilots to fill the gap. This, in turn, leaves regional airlines also in need.

“Although the pilot shortage is not limited to regional airlines, regional airlines have been first and, so far, hardest hit despite making considerable market based adjustments. This means that Iowa is highly-exposed to the shortage,” Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, said in an email.

All eight of Iowa’s commercial service airports are classified as small, with Des Moines and Cedar Rapids home to small hub airports.

Just shy of 80 percent of all air service in the state is provided by a regional airline, according to a Regional Airline Association May 2018 pilot workforce and training solutions report.

“I think for Iowa, it’s really concerning,” said Debi Durham, director of Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Durham noted the need for strong, well-performing airports as they play a critical role in economic development and business growth.

Caleb Kandel (background), a pilot for Jet Air, does a preflight check Tuesday as Matt Wolford (foreground) fills snack drawers before a charter flight at the Iowa City Municipal Airport. Wolford, general manager of Jet Air, said the company has focused on hiring pilots with ties to the area and worked to entice pilots to stay here through pay and benefits incentives.

Demand drives competition

While regional airlines may be hardest hit, corporate airlines are not immune.

In need of qualified pilots, both commercial and regional airlines look to hire qualified pilots out of other industry sectors — including charter pilots.

“If you think about it like a giant ladder, when the top rung reaches down to the next one, that just moves the whole,” said Michael Tharp, airport operations specialist with the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

Private aviation company Jet Air, which has been in operation for nearly 50 years, has provided charter services out of Iowa City Municipal Airport since 2001.

Jet Air General Manager Matt Wolford said, to stay competitive, Jet Air, which employs 17 pilots among 11 charter planes, has tried to focus on local pilots with ties to the area.

“In terms of competition, we’ve done a very good job of keeping pilots ... we’ve been very targeted in who we hire and how we hire and maintain people,” he said. “For us, it’s been more of a pre-emptive move.”

Educational facilities aren’t immune to the industry shortfalls either, said Chaminda Prelis, director of aviation programs at the University of Dubuque.

Recent graduates, who often take on a flight instructor role at the school, also are being recruited by larger airlines in need of pilots.

“The downside of some of that growth is we are struggling to keep our flight instructors long-term,” Prelis said.

The federal mandatory retirement age for pilots — which shifted about 10 years ago from 60 to 65 to keep pilots in the air longer — also creates challenges on the faculty side. As a result, Prelis said it’s now more difficult to recruit those nearing retirement age.

Bucking the trend

A shortage, though, means prospective pilots are entering a field starved for a skilled workforce. At the University of Dubuque, Prelis said the average number of students in the school’s aviation program has increased from about 50 students to more than 70 in just a few years.

“The good news is that our graduates are finding a lot more options than they did in the past,” Prelis said.

In need of pilots, airlines have begun taking recruiting efforts directly to the school.

“They’re literally knocking on our door asking, ‘Hey, can we come on campus, can we come talk to your students?” Prelis said.

About two years ago, the school’s aviation department began hosting career expos twice a year to connect employers with prospective employees, Prelis said.

To keep employees and stay competitive, many airlines have begun raising pilot wages.

According to the Regional Airline Association, average pay for a first officer pilot climbed more than 150 percent between 2014 and 2016.

While competition in the industry has driven up pilot wages, it has not been enough to address shortfalls in the market.

In the same span of 2014-2016, overall recruiting success declined, according to the Regional Airline Association.

“Pay is not resolving the issue, pay is not going to fly the airline, so there’s more to it,” Lenss said.

One of the biggest barriers to becoming a pilot is the cost of education, with students not only paying for tuition, room and board, but also taking on the cost of the necessary 1,500 flight hours needed for Airline Transport Pilot certification.

Prelis said students with a four-year degree can leave school with as much as $115,000 to $130,000 in debt.

Durham said airlines themselves might be forced to provide student loan reimbursement programs to help reduce the cost of education for future employees — something that has become more common in other industries.

“I think what the airlines are going to have to do is what other industries are doing,” Durham said.

In addition, Lenss said loan forgiveness programs could be opened up by state or federal legislators to help reduce the entry cost of becoming a professional pilot.

“In order to change this and really try to make headway and solutions, we need a very active regional business community helping us champion the need for change ... and we have to have direct involvement from Iowa’s congressional delegation to start making inroads beyond what the airlines have already done,” Lenss said. “Because Iowa is most at risk, we need to be the most engaged.”

Original article can be found here ➤


  1. I'll give you a tip to improve your pilot scores Mr.& Mrs. 135 and 121 HR manager. When an applicant shows up that meets all your requirements, has a squeaky clean flying/driving record, can pass a FBI background check and a DOT drug test, don't wash him or her out just because they couldn't put a positive spin on every negative or because they thought honesty was the best policy during the interview. The days are gone when you can be that picky and the sooner you realize it the better.