As millions take to the skies each day and airlines forecast what could be the most profitable summer ever, Americans should prepare for higher prices, more cancellations, and smaller airports losing all scheduled flight service.
Never before have U.S. airlines been more desperate for pilots. The massive pilot shortage affects not only the airlines but also the millions who fly each year.
Prepare for higher fares
U.S. airlines hope to add 13,000 pilots just this year, but America produces only between 5,000 and 7,000 pilots annually, according to United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. With fewer pilots, supply will be limited and ticket prices will continue to climb with demand.
"The pilot shortage for the industry is real and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plan because there simply aren't enough pilots, at least not for the next five plus years," Kirby said. "The other really large airlines will also probably be able to attract enough pilots, but for anyone else, I just don't think it's mathematically possible to meet the pilot demand for the capacity plans that are out there."
The U.S. will lose about half of its pilots to retirement in the next 15 years, according to the Regional Airline Association. American Airlines expects more than 5,000 of its 15,000 pilots to retire in the next seven years.
Earlier this month, American Airlines announced it would begin busing passengers from smaller cities to its hub in Philadelphia. JetBlue will cut its spring and summer flight schedule by 10 percent. In an earnings call Thursday, United's Kirby said its regional partners have grounded 150 planes because of the pilot shortage.
"The airlines are underwater and trying to breathe through a straw," American 737 Captain and Union spokesperson Dennis Tajer told ABC News. "Airlines are poaching each other's pilots. It's stunning the level of aggression."
Mark Stinson is in flight school in Florida and still at least a year away from being qualified to join an airline, but the 31-year-old already has two job offers with regional airlines. Stinson says despite not having earned his commercial pilots license, one airline has offered to allow him to accrue vacation time the moment he signs a contract.
"The airlines are so hungry that they are taking just about anyone into these programs, and after pilots build enough hours they are applying directly into the majors," Stinson says referring to the nation's largest airlines. "Two of our instructors got hired directly with Spirit Airlines and will be going to training here shortly. They only have about 2 years' experience. It's insane. They will be airbus pilots in no time."
American says it's hiring 50-70 pilots each week in 2022, more than at any time in its history. United plans to hire more than 2000 pilots this year. United, Delta, American and Southwest pay among the highest salaries in the industry with United's most senior pilots earning roughly $450,000 annually.
"The pilot shortage is real and it is grave. Larger airlines are able to recruit, but midsize and smaller airlines are having problems. Regional airlines, the airlines that operate the 50 to 75 seat airplanes that we see many airlines operate to small towns, they are really struggling and airlines have had to scale back or drop service to a lot of smaller communities," Henry Harteveldt, president of travel analytics firm Atmosphere Research told ABC News.
Airline recruiters under extreme pressure to find pilots
Envoy Air, a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines, tells applicants they can earn up to $182,000 a year if a candidate promises to stay for at least two years and is certified to fly its Embraer regional jets.
"They're reaching out to me, sending me emails. They don't care. They just want to see that, you know, you're getting your flight hours. They'll do an interview with you and ask you a few HR questions, but then they just offer you the job automatically. So that's how much in need they are of pilots," Stinson said.
Why a shortage?
For several reasons: The FAA mandates pilots retire at 65, fewer pilots leaving the military, high cost and lengthy training times, and thousands of early retirements at the start of the pandemic.
During the second half of the 20th century, the military pumped out far more pilots than it does today; and now many of those pilots are rapidly approaching retirement. Obtaining a commercial pilot's license today can easily cost between $80,000 and $170,000.
To help offset the shortage, United Airlines recently opened its own flight school, Aviate Academy. United plans to train 5000 pilots by 2030 and will subsidize training costs in return for a commitment to flying for the company.
As travel demand rapidly increased in the months following the release of vaccinations, many airlines scheduled more flights than they could staff. Since last summer, we've seen multiple airline meltdowns.
"The airline management teams are trying to fly more than they have pilot staffing for," American Capt. Dennis Tajer said. "We are seeing more fatigue reports than we've ever seen."
Pilots from all major airlines have complained that their duty days are unpredictable, often running hours longer than scheduled and sometimes not knowing what day they will arrive back home. At Southwest, pilots say it's not uncommon to arrive in a destination only to find out there is no hotel available.
"We are human beings and this is pressuring the margin of safety," Tajer said.
Last week, pilots at Southwest wrote a letter to management about the more than 300% increase in pilot fatigue calls. If a pilot tells the airline he or she is fatigued, the pilot is automatically removed from the flight with no questions. This often results in delays and cancellations.
"Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines' number-one safety threat," the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told airline management in a recent letter.
Delta Air Lines pilots echo that message and have begun picketing at airports.
'We are being pushed to our limits'
"We've flown record amounts of overtime during the pandemic to help Delta operate its schedule and get our passengers safely to their destinations. In many cases, pilots are flying long after their day or trip was supposed to end. Delta cannot continue to operate the schedule at redline with no room for error," Capt. Jason Ambrosi, chairman of the Delta Master Executive Council of the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. "We are being pushed to our limits as Delta tries to add back flying and capture revenue."
Delta, Southwest, and American all responded, saying they constantly evaluate their schedules and that safety is their highest concern.
"We continuously evaluate our staffing models and plan ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise, and the resilience of the Delta people is unmatched in that regard. Pilot schedules remain in line with all requirements set by the FAA as well as those outlined in our pilot contract," a Delta spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News.
Southwest told ABC News it has revised its flight schedule to better match pilot supply.
"The increase is expected, as it's common to experience an elevated level of fatigue calls during irregular operations and in March, the industry faced weather and airspace delays that resulted in disruptions across the network. The March increase in Pilot fatigue calls is a result of the system working as designed, allowing Crew to determine if they are too fatigued to fly," Southwest wrote in a statement.
There are no quick fixes. Scott Kirby told investors that United plans to hire at least half the 5000 new pilots each year, adding it will be at least five or six years before there might be relief for the mid-size and regional airlines.
"Pilots salaries are higher than ever, and there's never been a better time to be a commercial airline pilot," Faye Malarkey Black, the President and CEO of the Regional Airline Association said in an interview with ABC News. "I will say we've made the grass on the other side of the fence very, very green. This is an attractive career with a really high ROI on the training dollar. The problem is, if you can't get over the fence, it doesn't matter how green the grass is on the other side, you can't access it."
Student loans can be difficult to obtain and expensive, making it impossible for some aspiring pilots. "You're allowed to use a student loan to cover flight training, but it's not enough. Student loan is capped in an undergraduate environment, and it doesn't come close to covering the actual cost of a flight training degree," Malarkey Black explained. Airline trade groups are lobbying for fundamental policy changes to ensure any aspiring pilot has the ability to attend flight school. For now there is no legislation on the table.
Consumers should expect higher fares, fewer flights, and more cancellations in the coming years.
However, If you are looking for a lucrative career and ready to put in the time and money, you likely won't have a problem finding a job as an airline pilot.