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Lack of pilots in the US is forcing airlines to cut flights and seek solutions

Airline pilots pass through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Anna Moneymaker | Getty pictures

The United States is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travelers return after more than two years of the Covid-1[ads1]9 pandemic.

The crisis has led the industry to search for solutions.

At least one legislator is said to be considering legislation that could raise the federally mandated retirement age for aircraft pilots from 65 to 67 or higher to extend pilots’ time in the sky.

A regional airline proposed reducing flight time requirements before joining a US airline, and airlines are reconsidering training programs to lower the entry barrier. Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines joined other major airlines to drop a four-year degree from its pilot hiring requirements.

Several US airlines, including Frontier, are recruiting some pilots from Australia. American Airlines sells bus tickets for some short routes.

But some airline executives warn that the shortage could take years to resolve.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines will simply not be able to realize their capacity plans because there are simply not enough pilots, at least not for the next five plus years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said at a quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimated that the regional airlines United cooperates with currently have around 150 aircraft on the ground due to the lack of pilots.

The roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic stopped the hiring of pilots as training and licensing declined. Airlines distributed early retirement packages to thousands of pilots and other employees who aimed to cut work bills as travel demand cratered during the depths of the crisis.

“I feel like I went to the top,” said a former captain of a major US airline that took an early retirement package in 2020.

Now the airlines are desperate to hire and train pilots, but the rush can take too long to avoid flight disruptions.

Major US airlines are trying to hire more than 12,000 pilots in total this year alone, more than double the previous record in annual hires, according to Kit Darby, a pilot payroll consultant and a retired United captain.

The shortage is particularly acute in regional airlines that feed large airlines’ hubs from smaller cities. While employment and retention bonuses have returned with these airlines, salaries are lower there than with the large ones, and they recruit aggressively from the smaller companies.

Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, which flies for American and United, lost nearly $ 43 million in the last quarter as flight disruptions increased.

“We’ve never seen fatigue levels like this,” said Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “If we do not fly our planes, we lose money. You saw our quarterly figures.”

It takes Mesa an estimated 120 days to replace a pilot who gives two weeks notice to go to another airline, according to Ornstein.

“We can use 200 pilots right now,” he said.

Some airlines such as Frontier and the regional airline SkyWest recruit pilots from Australia under a special visa to ease the deficit, but the numbers are small compared to their overall rankings and employment targets.

The regional airline Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, last month requested the US government to allow pilots to fly for the airline with 750 hours, half of the 1,500 currently required, if they go through the airline’s training program. There are already exceptions to the 1500-hour rule, for example for US military-trained pilots and those who attend two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

The proposal has received backlash from family members of the victims of the 2009 Colgan Air 3407 crash, the latest fatal U.S. passenger plane crash. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and initiated the so-called 1500-hour rule, with the aim of ensuring pilot experience.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., is considering enacting congressional legislation that could raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots to at least 67 from the current age of 65, according to people familiar with Graham’s plans. About a third of airline-qualified pilots in the United States are between 51 and 59 years old, and 13% of the country’s airline pilots will reach retirement age within five years, according to the Regional Airline Association.

Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Growth limited

Lack of pilots and other workers has forced airlines to reconsider their growth plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are among the airlines that have recently cut capacity.

SkyWest, for its part, told the Department of Transportation that they plan to drop the service to 29 smaller cities that the government subsidizes through Essential Air Service.

Service reductions may isolate smaller U.S. cities, but Darby, the pilot payroll consultant, said it could open the door to smaller competitors who do not trust regional airlines as much as large network airlines.

“If they do not fly it, maybe a smaller airline will do it,” he said.

One of the biggest obstacles to bringing in new pilots is the cost of schooling. While the salaries of widebody captains at major airlines can exceed $ 350,000 a year, it takes years to qualify.

At ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, it costs close to $ 92,000 for a seven-month full-time program to obtain initial licenses. It can then take about 18 months or longer for pilots to build up enough hours to fly, often by instructing pilot students or sometimes by flying with banners near beaches.

“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. “You can not just get someone to come in from the street.”

In December, United began teaching the first students at its own flight school, United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with a goal of training 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says they aim for half of that number to be women or people of color. The company covers the cost of pilots’ training until they receive their private pilot certificate, which is estimated to be around $ 17,000 per student.

Other carriers have turned to low-interest loans or other measures to ease the financial burden for students.

“There is no quick fix,” Darby said.

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