Podcast: How Can The U.S. Pilot Shortage Be Resolved?
Listen in as Aviation Week and ATW air transport editors discuss the pilot shortage U.S. airlines are grappling with during the post-pandemic rebound. They explore the underlying issues and discuss potential near- and long-term solutions.
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Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for Window Seat, our Aviation Week air transport podcast. I'm Air Transport World and Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief Karen Walker, and I invite you to take your seat and enjoy this short flight with us.
Today I'm joined by two of my colleagues, Aviation Daily Senior Congressional Editor, Ben Goldstein, and Route and ATW Senior Editor, Aaron Karp. Welcome both, nice to see you both. We're all based in Washington, DC, and the topic we are discussing today is the US pilot shortage, which has been making headlines as executives at airlines small and large grapple with the colliding forces of a surge in demand for air travel, but a shortage of qualified people to fly the planes.
Having ramped up their schedules, some airlines have been forced to cut back rather than risk damaging last minute cancellations. Even more drastic, some are resorting to using buses to get passengers to their destinations, and that puts a whole new spin on flying an airbus. So Ben, you've been following this closely for some weeks now and you wrote a feature on it for ATW. Where have all the pilots gone?
Thank you, Karen. That is a great question. It's a story that most people are familiar with, obviously. There was already a shortage of commercial airline pilots, it's important to mention, leading up to the COVID pandemic. It was well known in the industry. And when the pandemic hit, that situation changed and we had a surplus of pilots.
So what ended up happening is through mostly voluntary measures, these airlines pulled forward a number of retirements for 62-year-old, 63-year-old, 64-year-old pilots. Usually the mandatory age is 65. In this case, thousands of additional pilots retired during 2020 and 2021.
And of course, demand did come back. It's already nearly back to 2019 levels here in the United States. And now we have a shortage of pilots because it takes a long time to hire and train and certify new pilots. So this is a real problem, and we're seeing it now with operational meltdowns at carriers like Alaska, JetBlue and others.
And Aaron, some of the worst pain we're seeing being experienced is at the regional airline side. Can you just explain why that is?
Yes. Well, the regional airlines have been warning of a pilot shortage and warning that it will get to this point and worse for over a decade. The regional airlines are where pilots start, so pilots break in at regional airlines. And then the mainline airlines, it used to be that mainline airlines got pilots from the military and various sources. These days, almost all of the mainline pilots come from the regionals or in some instances, the ultra low cost carriers. But essentially, the regionals are the farm system for pilots in a sense.
And so when the mainlines need pilots, they'll take them from the regional airlines, and the mainline's priority is the mainline routes. And if taking those pilots from the regional means they have to give up regional routes, they're willing to do that. And the regional airlines, they only fly the regional routes, so they are contracted almost entirely by the mainline airlines. And so they're subject to the mainline airlines saying, "We're dropping service to that community."
Scott Kirby, the CEO of United, last week said the United has 150 regional aircraft grounded right now. And he doesn't expect them to come back. I mean, he thinks they're done. And just think of all the communities those 150 aircraft were serving. One of the issues is that the sort of promise of the US airline network was it's this vast country with a lot of people living in rural areas.
But because of the regional airline network and because all the regional airlines were contracted to the majors and the flights through the hubs, pretty much you could live almost anywhere in the United States and get to, say, Paris in eight hours or nine hours. More consequentially, if you lived in a rural area and you needed to see a medical specialist who is only in New York or Boston, rather than having to worry about driving or switching planes, you could get right to that city.
And so I think that there's a lot of knock-on effects in the smaller communities. And I think what could drive people to want to make change is when they see that so many airports that had service before have almost no service or no service, and what are the consequences of that, more broadly.
So trying to sort of understand this a little bit, Ben, you made that point about there was, of course we understood airlines had to streamline in quite drastically in the worst times of the pandemic, and the voluntary layoffs and early retirements make sense. But there was also the government PSP program, which was essentially government aid to ensure that the airlines were able to keep the most skilled staff so that they could come back when they were needed. It seems to me like there's something gone wrong in there. Did the airlines overdo the cutbacks or did they underestimate the surge?
I think it's a little bit of both, Karen. It's a very interesting question, and I'm slightly hesitant to really pass judgment because it really was an unprecedented challenge in spring of 2020 and really over the course of the pandemic. And there was a lot of uncertainty, and these companies were really bleeding cash at an alarming rate, and they needed to stop that cash burn. That was priority number one; however, that being said, it was already common knowledge that there was a pilot supply shortage in the years leading up to COVID. And so I do believe that letting go of as many skilled pilots as they did was shortsighted because predictably demand did come back and it came back fast and hard. And now they're in this deficit, this supply deficit, and there's no easy solution because it takes so long to train them, which is why we have these training bottlenecks built up across the system.
And on top of that, like you mentioned, what really complicates it is they did get all this money from the US taxpayer, for the sole purpose of keeping their skilled employees on the payroll. And then they kind of got around that through the voluntary reductions. And they ended up, yeah, they didn't use the money for other non-payroll related purposes, but they sort of did in a sense, because they found a way to get around that requirement. So I think it could have been predicted that this would've happened. I do think they let go of too many pilots. And I do think now they're stuck with this problem and there's no easy solution except maybe to take down capacity in the near term and really ramp up hiring efforts and training efforts as best as they can.
So you've mentioned a couple of solutions there. One of them is a sort of a yes, it's the near term. It's sort of not what the airlines want or the traveling public wants as everybody suddenly is able to travel again and wants to travel. But yep, we can see how networks are being adjusted, but let's talk about maybe some of the longer term solutions here. So as Aaron mentioned, this is still a long term issue. It was exacerbated by the pandemic, but it wasn't unknown before the pandemic. There was a lot of talk about pilot shortage then. Aaron, what are some of the other thoughts that are out there about addressing this?
Well, I think that the main one that regional airlines would point out is the so-called 1500 hour rule. And this was a piece of legislation or part of a FAA reauthorization I believe, passed in 2009, after the Colgan air crash. And the feeling among the lawmakers who passed it was, well, if you increase the amount of flying hours a pilot has to have before he comes a commercial pilot, obviously he'll be a better pilot, but what was not thought through is that it's a takes a long, long time to accumulate 1500 hours. And often pilots are accumulating those hours in very small GA aircraft that have nothing in common with a regional jet or a main line jet. And what regional airlines have said once that rule started being passed, the pilots that would come to their training academies after the 1500 hours needed more training than the pilots who had come directly from flight schools with a lot fewer hours because they were, had gotten a lot of quality training and hadn't had time to develop bad habits.
And so I think that the main push among regional airlines is to say, let's change this 1500 hour rule. And particularly let's make a simulator training count because pilot trainers will say that being in a simulator is much more like, especially of the modern simulators we have now, is much more like flying in a commercial airline than flying a small turbo prop. So I think that's the big one in terms of public policy. And maybe Ben could talk about whether that could be repealed or not.
And then I think the other big issue is the pilot makeup is just overwhelmingly white and male. And I think like 6%, 7% of pilots are women despite being more than half the population. And so there's an obvious, huge pool of prospective pilots there that are not being tapped. And I think one of the things that even the main airlines are doing, but especially the regional airlines are really, really reaching out, really taking their female pilots that they have, and having them go out there and speak to high schools and say, "This is a profession that is available to you," going into inner cities and say, "There's no reason why you can't be a pilot. We can figure out a way to finance it."
And I think that's the one other issue I'd bring up is that, partly because of the 1500 hour rule, partly because pilots cannot take traditional student loans, is that it's almost prohibitively expensive to become a pilot. So you're looking at $150,000, maybe $170,000 just to get to the cockpit. And, and so for most Americans, that's out of reach. And if you're 20 years old and you and your parents are deciding what kind of career are you going to go into? And someone says to you, "Well, you can become a pilot, but you won't be able to start working for three or four years. You're not going to earn much money or any money in the next three or four years. You're going to have to spend $150,000," I think that's just a huge issue is it costs so much money to become a pilot.
That's a good point, it is an incredibly expensive and lengthy, and obviously that's because of the safety standards, which we all want, of course, to keep in place. But I do know that the airlines are now really ramping up their efforts in terms of sort of growing their own flight academies and doing much more sort of actual, substantially paying towards the cost of becoming a pilot. So that's that, it's just that's going to take time. Ben, do you have any thoughts of other solutions out there?
I think Aaron really put it well. I think the crux of the issue, the biggest problem in the United States is the 1500 hour rule and the prohibitive cost of become a pilot. I think we need to make federal student loan and financial aid available to pilot students. And, and there are people like the RAA who is advocating for that. I don't think we're likely to see movement on the 1500 hour rule anytime soon, that is the general takeaway I've gotten from talking to people like Mesa CEO, Jonathan Ornstein. And he pointed out to me that Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, is a very strong backer of the 1500 hour rule. He is close to the families of the victims of the Colgan Air crash. And it is just, it's a very politically sensitive topic. There's general agreement that the 1500 hour rule is restricting pilot supply, but it's one of those hot button or one of those sensitive issues that I believe is unlikely to change soon.
So given that I think the biggest thing for the industry to do right now is to find a way to increase financial aid either through federal efforts or otherwise, to target more diverse pilots like minorities and women, and to build out their own pathway programs and pilot academies like we've seen JetBlue has done a great job with their Gateways program. Alaska has recently set up a pilot academy. So there is movement in this space, and those are the kinds of initiatives that I think we will see more of in the continued lack of progress on repealing the 1500 hour rule.
And what about technology ultimately as we have more technology, well, there's a lot of technology in the cockpit, but more and more for autonomy. Is there, are we getting closer to single pilot operation in commercial airliners or no pilot in the cockpit? Aaron?
Yes, Scott Kirby last week described this as a math problem, that there simply aren't enough pilots to operate the capacity that US airlines want to operate. And so one issue that is sort of talked around at the margins, but I think is going to become pretty central is the concept of single pilot operations, and at Collins Aerospace and Intel are right now working on building essentially a virtual pilot with really high powered Intel chips. And it will be, they expect it to be on a military helicopter in 2028, but they're building it for airlines and they're building it because Airbus and Boeing have told them, we want you to build basically a computer that could replace a pilot. And so I think, and the cargo airlines are particularly want this, I think we will get to a point within a decade where there's no longer a technological issue and really not a safety issue with going to a single pilot.
And it should be not that at one point there were four pilots in the cockpit. There were the pilot, the co-pilot, the flight engineer and the navigator. Technology made the navigator redundant. Technology eventually made the engineer redundant. And if you talk to avionics suppliers, they'll tell you that technology ultimately is going to make the co-pilot redundant. Whether it will make any pilots redundant, I think is another topic. But eventually I think that sort of thing will be the case. I think realistically in the near term we'll get to a point where it's either you have a single pilot flying from a small city to a major market, or you don't have the flight. And if you just think of it as a math problem, if you go to a single pilot, you double the number of aircraft that you can operate.
So I think that's the ultimate solution. I think all these other things are good and can help, but they're time consuming, they're expensive. The real sort of silver bullet, and almost every problem in aviation is ultimately solved by technology, is that you'll have a co-pilot that is a artificial intelligence-driven, high powered; basically a pilot that could operate the entire flight, if the pilot had a heart attack, could take it over, could go around weather, could talk to air traffic control. And that's being feverishly worked on by the avionics companies, and the computer chip makers right now. And so once that comes online and once it's proven, and what will probably happen is that computer will go on with two pilots at first. And once everyone realizes how safe it is, perhaps it'll go cargo first, then regional flights, then mainline flights. But I think it's inevitable that we'll go to one pilot operations. And that is an obvious mathematical way to have a huge number of new pilots that can operate aircraft.
Fascinating. So Aaron, Ben, thank you so much for sharing your insights today on what is a very current problem right here in the US at least, but clearly is and also has long term implications as to where we're going. And thank you to our listeners, I hope you'll join us again next week for our next episode. Make sure you don't miss it by subscribing to the Window Seat podcast on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Until then, I hope on your next flight that your pilot arrives at the gate before you do. This is Karen Walker disembarking from Window Seat.
As to "single pilot" operations, this is a very long way off. Even with advances in technology, having two pilots in the cockpit increases the flexibility of day-to-day operations. If ATC issues a runway change the PNF can re-tune radios and update FMCs while the other pilot continues to fly or can update FMCs when ATC issues a clearance for a visual approach. Removing the second pilot would, in the beginning, result in less operations per hour to a given airport/runway. The bigger issue would be one of the safety benefit during any "non-normal" or emergency that having two "human computers" in the cockpit brings. The issue of public perception is another hill to climb.
Some of those forced to retire have continued to fly for on-demand 135 or fractional operations. Others have found 135/corporate so unattractive that they have dropped out of the pilot pool. Many would be happy to return to the predictability of scheduled flying.
If ICAO rules could be changed permitting over 65 pilots in limited international operations, positions would open up at some US-based regional operations that currently have international flights – for example, Cape Air’s Caribbean operation in PR and the Virgin Islands, and FedEx feeder routes, which can use pilots over the age of 65 to fly within the San Juan FIR, but not to Dutch, British and independent islands within and without the San Juan Domestic CTA.