Plane Answers: Is there a pilot shortage coming?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Justin asks:

I have seen advertisements lately that have been saying that there will be a large number of airline pilots retiring in the next few years and that the demand for new pilots will be high. Is this just a rumor or what?

If so what do you suggest as the best route in becoming an airline pilot?

For the next three years, we’ll likely see some of the fewest pilot retirements since the end of World War II. On December 13th, 2007, the mandatory retirement age for pilots was raised by Congress from 60 to 65 years. This has drastically reduced retirements for the past two years, and we’re likely not going to see those numbers pick up until after December of 2012.

This may seem like bad news, but if you’re in your late teens to early twenties, you may be in a good position to take advantage of this stagnation while you work on your 4-year college degree and pick up the ratings and flight time needed to be competitive when the hiring resumes.
For the first five years after 2012 to 2017 we’ll see retirement rates of 3% per year at my airline, climbing from 4 to 7% in the following five years and, starting in 2022, up to 10% of our pilots will retire every year until 2027.

Unfortunately many airlines still have large numbers of pilots on furlough, which means that those pilots, if they choose to return, are first in line when the economy picks up. American Airlines has 1,889 pilots on furlough, United has 1,164 and USAirways has 224. ASA and American Eagle each have between 70 and 80 pilots on furlough.

And, unlike in previous downturns, large corporate operators have been hit as well. FlexJet currently has a total of 89 or 17% of their pilots on furlough.

(Furlough numbers courtesy of Airline Pilot Central)

There’s another piece of legislation that may have an impact on your career path as well. The House passed a bill five days ago that requires an ATP certificate to fly for any passenger carrying airline, which means that co-pilots will now be required to have a minimum of 1,500 hours total flight time instead of 250. While it was rather rare to be hired by an airline at 250 hours, many regionals required at least 500 to 800 hours to be hired last year.

I often find myself giving advice regarding the civilian path to the airlines, and if the new bill clears the Senate, that advice will likely change a bit. In the past, I’ve always said that a degree from an aviation school such as Embry-Riddle, Daniel Webster, Purdue or Western Michigan University wasn’t a must. I stressed that a pilot could always get a 4-year degree from the college or university of your choice, in a field they may want to fall back on, while earning their ratings from a flight school nearby.

But the new bill is expected to give credit to pilots who attend an aviation university, which they can use to reduce the 1,500 hour flight time minimum for their ATP rating. Keep in mind, however, that even after attending one of these schools for four years, it’s not likely their students will have the requirements met for an ATP license, so they’ll have to flight instruct or hop rides until they can log the required flight time.

I’m sorry that I don’t have better news, but this legislation could at least increase the pay rates for starting co-pilots at regional airlines desperate to attract 1,500 hour ATP-rated pilots. The pool of qualified pilots out there will be much fewer overnight if this legislation passes.

Good luck.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.