Column: Pilot Shortage Looming for U.S. Carriers

As American Airlines pilot and union spokesman Denis Tajer said, "It's a real brain-drain."

One of those brains, US Airways Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the real-life hero of the Miracle on the Hudson retired just a couple of years ago but before he did, he talked about how his pay check had shrunk over the years by nearly 40 percent.

That's the other thing missing: Money. As the Wall Street Journal put it, the days when captains could pull in $300,000 a year for just a few long-haul flights a month are pretty much gone. A first officer's pay at a major airline can start at less than $22,000 a year and flight school training can set you back as much as $100,000. I remember how a veteran pilot with a legacy carrier ruefully laughed as he recalled leaving the military in the late 90's for those "big fat airline salaries" - salaries that suddenly went on a diet.

No one's passing the hat for pilots, but losing a big chunk of salary over the years hurts no matter what you do. But as they say, money isn't everything; yet another airline pilot (who also wanted his identity kept under wraps) recently told me, "I still love to fly, and I have never wanted to do anything else," but where are all the kids who feel as he does? Three problems: the military is no longer a big source of pilots; foreign airlines (especially in Asia) are luring some U.S. pilots with promises of big paydays; but mostly, it seems, it's the increased flight hours requirement that's causing a problem.

Starting next summer federal mandates will require all new hires have 1,500 flight hours, which is six times the current requirement. This represents a huge outlay of time and money for prospective pilots and no one seems sure how to overcome this to fill the anticipated shortage.

And yet, not everyone agrees there's an imminent problem; one legacy carrier pilot recently said, "Until all those furloughed pilots are called back, and there are still thousands of them out there, then I will believe there is a true pilot shortage." He added, "I have yet to see a headhunter come knocking on my door for my services!"

He admits he's a little cynical. He admits the job has some problems. But he also said, "Even though sometimes it takes a little more effort to put a smile on my face, I still believe I was super lucky to get to fly."

He added, "I've got the best job in the world." Maybe this pilot gap won't be so hard to overcome after all. Maybe. The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.

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