Column: Pilot Shortage Looming for U.S. Carriers

PHOTO: Pilots in cockpit

For a few brief (and terrifying) moments, the movie "Flight" evokes the glamour and glory of airline pilots as Denzel Washington's pilot performs like a champ. Of course, this particular hero has a few flaws - the understatement of the year - but so apparently does the real-life job of flying a plane.

How else to explain why a pilot for a major U.S. airline recently told me that he hopes his own children do not follow him into the cockpit? And he may not be alone. And that's a problem.

Experts warn that a severe pilot shortage is on the way, citing in particular an increase in required flight hours for new pilots. More on that in a moment. Then there's the glamour factor -- or the lack thereof.

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"There is no glamour anymore; it's an industry that now charges you for a blanket," private pilot and Los Angeles-based journalist Charles Feldman said. And he's got a point. Maybe the mystique and romance of commercial flight disappeared when airlines began cramming passengers into planes like - well, like all those 17-inch wide seats they cram into cabins. Yep, 17 inches is average; have you measured your hindquarters lately?

What happened was September 11, 2011, followed by the pile-on of soaring oil prices and the recession which forced airlines into the three C's business model: Contraction, consolidation and capacity cuts. Survival was the name of the game as airlines negotiated employee pay cuts along with hiring freezes and pilot furloughs even as proud carriers like Aloha, Continental, Midway, Northwest and more disappeared via merger or bankruptcy.

Now, in this period of semi-calm (the airline industry is never truly non-turbulent), the question of empty cockpits is getting revisited.

Such fears are not new; I've been writing about it since 2007 and in the intervening years, the FAA offered the partial fix of raising the mandatory pilot retirement age from 60 to 65. Trouble is, a lot of pilots are now approaching the new cut-off age.

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