Airlines — Although traveling is now in full swing after a lengthy lockdown for most countries, US travelers are set to undergo another hurdle.
On Wednesday, an industry group told Congress that a “tsunami of pilot retirements” is set to hit.
The mass decision would add to the US pilot shortage, limit flight availability for passengers, and add pressure to fares.
Faye Malarkey Black, the president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association spoke to a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, saying:
“The pilot shortage has resulted in a collapse in air service.”
More than half of the operating pilots would hit the mandatory age of 65 within 15 years, and the number of younger pilots isn’t enough to fill those gaps.
Black noted that the ongoing pilot shortage is happening nationwide.
42 states have less airline service today compared to before the pandemic, and 136 airports have lost over a quarter of their service.
Additionally, airlines have completely cut off flights to 11 airports situated in smaller cities that connect to larger airports.
More than 500 planes from regional airlines are standing by without enough pilots to operate them.
The crafts that fly are used around 40% less than in the past.
Most airlines have yet to restore the service cuts they made over the pandemic to full capacity despite record bookings at some carriers.
The limited capacity and strong demand are two factors leading to fares hitting above pre-pandemic levels.
Faye Malarkey Black’s group represents the regional carriers that provide feeder service for larger airlines like:
While major airlines are faced with pilot shortages, they have been hiring pilots from regional carriers, which could create a problem for cities and passengers that rely on them.
According to Black, large airlines have hired more than 13,000 pilots in 2022, nearly all from smaller carriers that RAA represents.
Last year, more pilots earned their licenses at a higher rate, but 9,500 new entrants weren’t enough to keep up with demand.
Black said the cost of training for new pilots could be as high as $80,000.
When combined with the cost of a bachelor’s degree, the costs would total $200,000.
According to Black, federal financial aid isn’t enough to give poorer students a chance to pursue a career as a pilot, saying:
“Unlike other career paths that require additional professional credentialing, such as lawyers, accredited pilot training programs can’t access traditional lending available through graduate aid programs to cover the higher costs.”
Black estimates that the demand for pilots will only continue to grow.
Less than 8% of the pilot workforce are under the age of 30, and many are choosing the pilot title as a second career.
“These pilots were long called to the career path but were only able to surmount the financial obstacles later in life after they built up their own savings and credit histories,” said Black.
However, the union representing US airline pilots urged Congress not to change pilot qualification and training standards to address the pilot shortage.
Some reasoned that it would only create a band-aid solution compromising safety.
Jason Ambrosi, the President of the Air Line Pilots Association, shared his thoughts, telling the House Transportation subcommittee:
“This is no time to weaken safety standards.”
After a series of airline crashes, the requirements have helped passenger fatalities drop by 99.8%.
“This pilot training framework has also produced tens of thousands more pilots over the last decade than airlines needed,” he said.
Ambrosi also argued that airlines are understaffed because they haven’t been providing pilots with adequate pay and quality of life conditions.
He also cited the management decision over the pandemic.
“The current labor market is complicated by pilots moving among carriers as they leave airlines that offer less attractive careers for those offering better pay and quality of life.”
Retirement age, diversity, and the pandemic
Jason Ambrosi also pushed back on arguments regarding the increase of a pilot’s retirement age.
He reasoned that a proposal to increase the age to 67 would only create scheduling headaches for airlines.
Senior airline pilots typically fly international routes, but international rules have an age limit at 65.
When pressed about other pilot positions allowing pilots to work until 70, Ambrosi said he didn’t represent those workers.
The hearing also discussed a lack of diversity among pilots, with most of them being white males.
They also sought ways to address the issue as it could address pilot shortages.
Many acknowledged the shortage of pilots had been present even before the pandemic.
The airlines received billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money over the pandemic with a prohibition to not layoff staff and to ensure the shortage didn’t worsen.
However, many airlines offered buyouts and early retirement packages to save money.