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GAO report reveals pilot shortage in the U.S.

March 5, 2014, Washington, D.C. - The nation's regional airlines are having trouble hiring enough pilots, the government says, suggesting one reason may be that they simply don't pay enough.


March 5, 2014
By The Associated Press

A pool of qualified pilots is available, but it's unclear whether
they are willing to work for low entry-level wages, the Government
Accountability Office said in a report released Friday.

 

One key economic indicator supports the
emergence of a shortage, something regional airlines have complained of
and point to as a reason for limiting service to some small communities.
But two other indicators suggest the opposite is true, GAO said. Also,
two studies reviewed by the GAO "point to the large number of qualified
pilots that exist, but may be working abroad, in the military or in
another occupation, as evidence that there is adequate supply," the
report said.

 

The U.S. airline industry will need to
hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years due to an
expected surge in retirements of pilots reaching age 65 and increased
demand for air travel, the report said.

 

Eleven out of 12 regional airlines failed
to meet their hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year, the
report said.

 

However, no major airlines were experiencing problems
finding pilots.

 

Regional carriers account
for about half of all domestic airline flights. One big concern is that
communities served only by regional airlines will see their service
reduce or eliminated. Five regional airlines told GAO they are already
limiting service because of a pilot shortage.

 

Major airlines generally pay
significantly higher salaries than regional carriers and frequently hire
pilots from regionals. The average starting salary for first officers,
also called co-pilots, at regional airlines is $22,400 a year, according
to the Air Line Pilots Association.

 

Earlier this month, Wyoming-based Great
Lakes Airlines ended service in a handful of small towns, citing a
dearth of qualified pilots. The pilots association says Great Lakes pays
newly hired first officers $16,500 a year.

 

"Data indicate that a large pool of
qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand, but whether
such pilots are willing or available to work at wages being offered is
unknown," the report said. And, the size of the pilot pool has remained
steady since 2000, the report said.

 

There are currently 66,000 pilots working
for U.S. airlines, but there are 109,465 currently active pilots with a
first-class medical certificate who are licensed to fly airline
passengers, the report said. An additional 100,000-plus pilots with
commercial licenses might at some point choose to pursue an airline
career, the report said

 

The unemployment rate for
professional pilots is very low, only 2.7 per cent. That would normally
indicate a shortage, but that may not be the case, GAO said. Average
professional pilot salaries went down 9.5 per cent from 2000 to 2012,
while the number of pilots employed went up 12 per cent. Both trends are
inconsistent with a shortage, the report said.

 

At the same time, pilot qualifications
have been ramped up. Both captains and first officers need at least
1,500 hours of flying experience, although there are some exceptions.
First officers used to need just 250 hours.

 

In a statement, the trade group for
regional airlines blamed that rule for the pilot shortage and called on
Congress to address it. "Its impact has proven more immediate and
significant than analysts predicted," said Roger Cohen, president of the
Regional Airline Association.

 

The new regulations stem from an aviation
safety law Congress passed more than three years ago following the 2009
crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that was blamed on
pilot error. All 49 people on board and a man on the ground were killed.
An investigation revealed that the first officer had been paid only
about $16,000 the previous year, her first year at the airline. The
captain was earning about $63,000. The Continental Connection flight was
operated by the now-defunct regional carrier Colgan Air Inc.

 

The National Transportation Safety Board
concluded that both pilots were suffering from fatigue, although the
board stopped short of citing fatigue as a contributor to the crash.
Neither pilot had slept in a bed the night prior to the fatal flight.
The first officer, who lived at home with her parents, commuted across
the country overnight in a jump seat in order to make the fatal flight.

 

Afterwards, some lawmakers
questioned whether the pilots could afford hotel rooms on their
salaries and said raising the qualifications for entry-level pilots
would force airlines to pay more for greater experience.

 

So far, that doesn't appear to be
happening. The average new pilot at 14 regional airlines is paid about
$24 per hour for the first year of employment, GAO said. Hourly wages
increase for the second year on the job for first officers to about $30.
The average hourly pay for first officers at a major carrier is $48.

 

Classroom work and flight training in a
4-year program to qualify for commercial flying can cost well in excess
of $100,000. Pilot schools GAO interviewed reported fewer students
entering their programs because of the disparity between high education
costs and low entry-level pay at regional airlines.

 

"People aren't going to work for $22,000
again, and the reason they're not going to do it is they spend $100,000
or so to get their certification, and you can't live on that amount of
money, pay your student loans off and function," said Lee Moak,
president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

 

Some regional airlines have offered new
first officers signing bonuses or tuition reimbursement to attract more
pilots, the report said.