Pilot shortage hits regional airports hardest

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Boeing’s 2018 Pilot & Technician Outlook shows the demand for pilots is skyrocketing while supply is shrinking — and regional airports are likely to be hardest hit.

When Alaska Airlines pulled out of the Springs last November the pilot shortage was to blame, and Colorado Springs Airport is not alone in losing routes and airlines because of the small pilot pool.

The Boeing report predicts “a need for 635,000 new commercial pilots over the next twenty years,” adding, “With 295,000 active commercial pilots today, this is double the current workforce.”

This week, the Business Journal takes a look at what’s causing the pilot shortage, its impact on Colorado Springs, and where solutions might be found.

Where did all the pilots go?

First of all, waves of them are retiring — and they’re not being replaced.

“Retirements are increasing pace … because Congress changed the [mandatory] retirement age from 60 to 65, which kept the pipeline full for five years,” said Greg Phillips, director of aviation for Colorado Springs Airport. “But after that, all those folks started retiring — all those pilots that they were expecting originally to be retiring at 60, Vietnam-era pilots and … people that trained in the military who are natural and obvious candidates to join the commercial civilian pilot fleet.

“The pipeline isn’t being refilled by military pilots, partly because the military now is offering what I believe are about the highest pilot bonuses to stay in that they’ve ever offered.”

Last year, for example, the Air Force rolled out a new version of its bonus program that would see some fighter pilots receive retention bonuses worth up to $455,000 over 13 years.

According to Boeing, airlines in the United States will lose more than 8,000 pilots to retirement over the next five years — that’s more than four each day. Airlines will not only need to replace these retiring pilots, they’ll also need to hire new pilots to keep up with fleet growth.

Boeing predicts the global air fleet will expand from 24,400 to 48,540 airplanes over the next two decades, and Phillips sees the same trend domestically.

“What we’re seeing is the airlines, by and large, are trying to add aircraft,” he said. “They’ve got to have pilots to fly those aircraft. Frontier is trying to add literally hundreds of aircraft, so is American, so is United — so they need more pilots than ever. There are more people flying than ever, so you’re seeing continued capacity growth.”

Alongside retirements and air traffic growth, the other factor shrinking the pilot labor supply is the Federal Aviation Administration’s increased requirements for first officer qualifications.

“The real kicker was in 2013 when Congress enacted the 1,500-hour rule,” Phillips said. “And the 1,500-hour rule came out of the Colgan Air crash in February 2009 [which killed 50 people] and the congressional inquiry and everything that followed that. And what it said was that pilots — instead of needing 250 hours minimum time to be able to fly in a commercial carrier, next to … a captain who has a lot of hours — now a co-pilot has to have 1,500 hours.

“That’s a huge leap,” he said, noting that both the captain and co-pilot in the Colgan Air tragedy already had more than 1,500 hours of flight time. “All these additional hours mean two things: One, it takes a lot longer for somebody to get to the point they can fly commercially; and two, it adds a lot to the cost of getting to that 1,500 hours — because a lot of that [the pilot is] paying for. So for that reason what we see is fewer pilots coming into the pipeline. It affected small air carriers first, but it’s sort of rippling its way up.”

Boeing’s report notes that while pilot training costs were once commonly absorbed by the airlines, the burden has now shifted to the student — and the cost to qualify as a first officer of a commercial jet “can easily exceed $150,000, which can be a significant deterrent to aspiring pilots.”

The Regional Airline Association estimates the cost of becoming a commercial airline pilot even higher, at $200,000 — and most of that is not covered by student loans.

“It is becoming financially impossible for all but the wealthiest students to become pilots,” the RAA said in its Pilot Workforce Update, released this month.

According to the RAA, pilots graduate from training with around 250 hours in flight, and on average it now takes two more years for student pilots to earn the additional time required to reach 1,500 hours.

“Pilots typically complete these flight hours in environments in non-complex aircraft that bear little resemblance to commercial operations,” according to the RAA, “and where they have little opportunity to practice certain critical skills.”

Increased crew rest requirements, aggressive recruitment of existing captains, and insufficient training capacity are other factors preventing airlines from keeping pace with growing travel demands and costs.

What’s the impact?

The RAA’s Pilot Workforce Update states, “With too few pilots, airlines have been forced to curtail frequency and in some case exit markets.”

And Boeing’s report warns: “Small cities and airports are at risk of losing regular air service, and travelers are likely to see airfare price increases as airlines are challenged with rising labor costs.”

In short, when airlines pay more, passengers pay more. Fewer pilots also mean more canceled flights, and eventually more canceled routes.

That’s the reason Alaska Airlines ended its COS-Seattle service and left Colorado Springs. The airline had already cut its schedule by more than 6 percent by June of 2017, saying there were just not enough pilots to fly the route.

“According to the Regional Airline Association, regional airlines are the only passenger air service provider at 64 percent of airports in the United States,” the Boeing report said. “Route cancellations due to pilot shortages can hit these communities particularly hard.”

The RAA found that between 2013 and 2017, 62 percent of airports had air service reductions of 10 percent or more, 107 airports had reductions of 33 percent or more, and 20 airports lost passenger air service entirely.

Phillips has seen it happen. Great Lakes Airlines, a regional carrier that served routes to rural airports, many subsidized through the federal Essential Air Service program, ceased all scheduled passenger flights in March.

“I can’t remember exactly but 10, 15 years ago Great Lakes had 111 routes with these small airplanes, a lot of which were these EAS routes — and they dropped, dropped, dropped,” Phillips said. “And I had Chuck Howell, who was the chief operating officer, tell me on numerous occasions specifically that they went from 325 pilots in one year’s time, down to 99 pilots. What can you do with that?”

Boeing said the regional airport sector “plays a vital role in enabling regional and global connectivity” — and the pilot shortage threatening the sector is impacting segments of the aviation community downstream.

“Business aviation operators have seen a significant increase in attrition rates as airlines entice pilots with higher salaries and a more predictable work schedule,” the report said.

What about Colorado Springs?

“It’s funny because I hear people all the time saying COS should have more flights, [that it’s a] tiny little airport,” Phillips said. “Well, we’re the 99th largest airport in the country. So if you think about all the airports out there — yes, we’re not Denver, and my goodness if that’s the comparison then yes we’re a ‘tiny little airport’ — but in truth we’re one of the top 100 airports in the country.

“So we see impact from this but not like an airport like Alamosa would, or some of the other really small airports around the country.”

Like other airports, COS has felt the impact of more stringent requirements for crew rest, which is exacerbated by pilot shortages.

“Over the last few years, we see more flights that are delayed or even canceled because crews are timing out,” Phillips said. “So how the heck does that happen? It’s a crew rest thing, and they don’t have another crew standing ready to jump in the aircraft. If the airplane gets delayed enough, the airline can’t say, ‘Just finish this flight and then you can go to bed.’ It’s literally tick-tick-tick — you timed out. We see that. It’s incredibly frustrating for our passengers, and yet [it’s] something we have no control over at the airport.

“Beyond that, what we see is there are just no pilots to add. The one flight, of course, that we lost was the Seattle Alaska Airlines flight, specifically because of the pilot shortage.

“In some respects, we’re lucky it’s not worse,” Phillips added. “If we were significantly smaller we probably would have seen more impact. With reduction of flights, airlines have to cut somewhere — where are they going to cut? They’re going to cut the places that have the least number of travelers and the lesser schedule, and thankfully that’s not us.”

Whose problem is this to solve?

“Honestly, it’s everybody’s — it needs to be,” Phillips said. “As the airports, we don’t feel particularly empowered to enact a solution. But Congress has some potential involvement and potential remediation in this, and the airlines themselves — and then through them, the flight schools.

Delta Communications Manager Catherine Simmons said Delta expects to hire more than 8,000 pilots over the next decade to staff daily flights worldwide, as current pilots approach mandatory retirement.

“Delta recently launched the Delta Propel Pilot Career Path Program to help identify, select and develop the next generation of pilots,” she said in an email. “The Propel program is just another way for us to identify the next generation of pilots and meet our future hiring needs, and will supplement our current recruiting structure, which includes recruiting and hiring pilots currently flying in military and civilian sectors.”

Simmons said the program aims to support Delta’s future hiring needs by giving high-quality collegiate students a defined path and accelerated timeline to Delta.

“One of the needs identified by collegiate aviation institutions was flight instructor retention and availability,” she said. “Candidates in our program will be required to become a flight instructor, subsequently increasing the pilot pool, and have an option to pursue a unique career route in which they will continue instructing for their university while enrolled in the program.”

In its report, the RAA called on Congress to:

• Encourage the FAA to approve structured training pathways offered by certificated air carriers for credit toward an R-ATP certificate in cases where they enhance safety.

• Encourage FAA to evaluate new R-ATP pathways and provide credit for scenario-based structured training methods, such as high-fidelity flight simulators.

• Open financial avenues to support pilot training: Expand student loan coverage, establish loan forgiveness programs; ensure GI Bill funding; and create tax incentives for employer-based programs.

“This isn’t all doom and gloom,” Phillips said. “Certainly people are aware of it and consistently thinking about it, looking at it, trying to identify what we can do about it.”

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