Column: Pilot Shortage Looming for U.S. Carriers

PHOTO: Pilots in cockpitDigital Vision/Getty Images
Pilots do a pre-flight check in the cockpit of a commercial airliner.

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.

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.