An alarm, loud and familiar
I was downing my eighth chocolate chip cookie when the marvel of today's global air transportation system struck home. Again.
The killer batch of double-dark confections were baked by my niece, recently arrived from New Zealand, and there about to return with her brood. Meanwhile, the stack of classic, morsel-dotted blondes were baked in wonderful abundance by my youngest sister, soon to be launching for Abu Dhabi where her physician-husband is working on contract in a clinic.
Others assembled for the family fete in Maryland had arrived from Seattle, Augusta and Chicago, and I discovered that during the past year these siblings and scions had alighted in Bermuda, China, Cleveland, Calgary, Casper, Kauai, Seoul, Panama, Tampa, Taipei, and Fort Rucker, Ala. (the last, repeatedly). Their collective near-term itineraries mentioned at the gathering include London, Amalfi, Paris, Beijing, Geneva and Orlando. And this from a group of middle-classers. By the way, none, save me, have a professional connection to the travel industry, but rather are simply going about their lives, which frequently involves moving from A to B.
It is the jet airplane and its accessibility to the mass market that makes this possible, of course. And the entire world is catching on. The growing global demand for air travel will result in the delivery of tens of thousands of new jetliners in the next two decades, according to. Meanwhile, that tabulation is in addition to the 10,000 new business jets predicts will be shuttling executives across the world's airways in the next decade.
While I find that prospect exciting, others see trouble in the forecasts. Specifically, they say this surge in flying hardware is about to converge with a decline in personnel essential to direct it — namely, pilots. The reasons for that forecast decline are several.
First, the upward adjustment of the Age-60-and-Out forced retirement for airline pilots to age 65 was inaugurated five years ago, so the first class of four-stripers that benefited is exiting the cockpit and any headcount boost the provision delivered to the airlines will end in four years. Secondly, pay cuts, lost pensions, airline failures, increased duty time and general economic turmoil have made an airline career less appealing to many. Third, the traditional path of low-time copilots is being blocked by a new requirement that they have ATPs before they can take the right seat of an airliner. And fourth, the ex-military and general aviation pilot pools that once helped sustain the carriers are diminishing steadily.
The aviation industry is concerned, even alarmed. This past November a coalition of airline, general aviation, business aviation and academic government groups urged the General Accountability Office to conduct an in-depth examination of what they believe is a looming pilot shortage and its ramifications to the industry in particular and the U.S. as a whole.
Boeing, which is a member of the coalition, predicts the global industry will need 460,000 new airline pilots by 2031, with 185,000 of those in the Asia-Pacific region alone. I've not seen an estimate for the number of new business pilots required, but it must be in the multiple tens of thousands.
While some of the circumstances being cited are new, there's much about this looming crisis that's familiar. It seems the alarm sounds over this same, always imminent, threat about once per decade. And yet, collapse never seems to materialize, at least not among the air carriers. General aviation's is a different kind of personnel crisis.
I submit that the means to defuse the airline pilot shortage is well known: Money, mostly, and technology.
The starting pay at some regionals is terrible. And as the Experimental Aircraft Association's Mac McClellan correctly noted at a recent Wichita Aero Club panel discussion, the main objectors are the parents who get stuck with their kid's flight training and academic bills. They know that spending $100,000+ for a career that pays bag-boy wages is a lousy investment, and simply refuse. Pay more, and they will come. That will help raise wages — and career appeal — throughout the professional ranks.
In addition, increasingly carriers, especially foreign lines, are embracing the model long followed by the world's military aviation forces and certain carriers such as. Simply, select the most eager and able young folks and teach them to fly. Yes, that costs some serious money as well, but the results are generally superb.
And as quickly as regs such as the ATP requirement for copilots are imposed, they can be withdrawn or modified. I submit that an intense curriculum of simulator training and testing, monitoring flights and mentoring might assuage fretful legislators.
As for the decline of the general aviation pilot population — the AOPA reports the number of active U.S. pilots has dropped 25% from 827,000 in 1980 to 617,000 today — the causes are more complex and solutions less obvious. Here, I suspect likely candidates have determined that the costs and operational demands of private piloting are far out of line with the perceived rewards. And the consequence of human error or equipment malfunction can be death, which is a severe outcome for one's pastime.
I submit that the fix lies in technology, not the romance of piloting. What I suggested to that same Wichita audience was an utterly reliable, easy-to-program, hands-free, affordable vehicle that happens to fly. An iPad airplane. The technology is at hand. The regulations will follow. And so will the users. No, they won't be pilots, but they could rejuvenate an industry in failing health.
Should such a thing come to pass, just imagine the travel tales at the next family reunion.