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Due to a combination of low wages for entry-level pilots, expectations that pilot candidates will self-fund their flight training, and recent Congressionally-mandated minimum flight hour requirements, the projected future demand for experienced flight crew for big jets is in jeopardy. Regional airline co-pilots and pilots, in the lower ranks at least, don’t make a living wage. The more stringent FAA requirements (seven times the previous number of hours required in order to qualify for an ATP certificate) mean that regional airlines are scurrying to fill co-pilot and pilot positions — and the shortage comes precisely as major airlines, including Delta and United, are engaged in their first rounds of pilot hirings in several years. A first officer for a regional carrier, still on probation, typically makes $18,000 to $20,000 during his/her first year before taxes. Flight school loans can reach $100,000. The average hourly pay for a 5-year First Officer in the regional airlines is less than $40.00 versus a 15-year Captain at $92.00 per hour. These hourly pay scales becomes even more pathetic when you consider that regional airline pilots, who are paid only from the time the airline leaves the gate to the time it arrives at the destination, only are on the clock on average about 21.5 hours per week. This has created a situation in which a very large number of pilots sincerely believe that if they don’t work for peanuts or starvation wages, somebody else will.

Major manufacturers are ramping up their estimates for pilot demand in the next ten years. A half million new pilots will be needed to support projected airplane deliveries. The days of thinking pilots are a dime a dozen are long gone and it looks like US regional carriers are going to be hit hardest (thanks to Congress and their 1500 hour solution) as rising salaries in far off lands, with their offer of a better quality of life and living standard are starting to attract that experience offshore. Airlines in places like Korea, India, China and the UAE are having a hard time filling their cockpits with qualified personnel so they are looking to the west to meet their demands. There truly is a shortage of qualified pilots. Even if all the flights schools in this country cranked up their student output, the industry would still end up being short 3,000 pilots a year. With fewer and fewer pilot candidates deciding that the economic costs of training and low, entry-level wages are not worth it, the pilot supply may face a crisis moment in the mid-term future.

Potential hazard

  1. Saddled with debts from college and pilot training costs, regional airline pilots often endure an intense, fatiguing flight schedule of short hops and get paid on an hourly basis.
  2. Attracting more young people to careers in aviation must address the economic incentives for potential pilots rather than just continually looking at innovative ways to train pilots and technicians, moving away from paper and chalkboard-based learning to incorporate tablets, eBooks, gaming technology and three-dimensional models.
  3. Airline industry economic analysts and senior management will require the motivation of expensive, unmet aircraft lease payments because their expensive assets have had to be parked instead of out flying to generate revenue because no one is around to fly them.
  4. Salary comparison: The low end (regional) salary is about what one regional aircraft manufacturer pays their Safety Engineers after 20 years of service for about 200 hrs. per month. Is safety now a commodity?
  5. Contrarian point of view from Airlines for America spokesperson, Katie Connell: “Long-term projections about pilot hiring are inherently subjective as they are based on assumptions about airline growth that have often proved to be faulty,” she says. “We expect the major commercial airlines will be appropriately staffed, and are not expecting any shortage within the next few years.”
  6. This development should probably lead to expanded initiatives like 7 NOV 2013 FAA rule to enhance commercial pilot training with focus on stalls, upsets and crosswind.

Corroborating sources and comments

This just doesn’t fly: Some airline pilots barely make living wage

Boeing forecasts increased global demand for airline pilots – See more at:

Regional Airlines’ Pilot Shortage is Heading Toward the Perfect Storm – August 29, 2013

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Cross the Pond

Discussion of: Pay-for-Job versus Pay-for-Training

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