Boeing has estimated there will be a global shortage of 533,000 pilots over the next 20 years. This situation comes as no surprise. It has resulted from the combined effects of decreased military flight training, soaring civilian instruction costs and the recently mandated increase in hours for U.S. airline first officers. This shortage will grow as many senior pilots reach their mandatory retirement age. Combined, these issues demand we consider measures to address the problem. 

Much has been written about this topic, including the Viewpoint by Capt. Lee Moak suggesting there is really no shortage in the U.S. that could not be solved with higher pay, and one by William Swelbar that largely blamed the unions for allowing diminutive regional pilot salaries to subsidize their well-heeled counterparts flying for the mainline airlines. Regional carriers now operate more than half of all U.S. flights. 

Some believe the pilot shortage has become acute because of low starting salaries. Unions and the U.S. Government Accountability Office have noted there is theoretically an untapped pool of individuals with Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) licenses, thereby suggesting inadequate compensation is the primary cause of this shortage.

However, another scientific study is needed to estimate how many of these qualified pilots would consider flying for regional carriers and what starting salaries would be required to attract them. Would an increase from the current $25,000 range to, say, $35,000 be adequate? If not, how about $45,000? And so on. Such a study is needed because many of these individuals may already have other, more lucrative careers. Thus, it is doubtful that enhancing starting salaries per se is the answer, but we need to get the data to know the real impact. 

While better pay should help, it is unlikely to be a panacea, so government and industry leaders should evaluate other innovative solutions. Three potential remedies come to mind: 

1. Reestablish the Civilian Pilot Training Program 

This program, which originated in 1939 to help alleviate a critical aviator shortage just before World War II, could provide scholarships to highly qualified individuals who want airline pilot careers but cannot afford the $100,000-plus required for such training. The cost of this program might be funded by an increase in the federal passenger boarding fee. With more than 764 million enplanements per year, a $2 increase in the levy would generate more than $1.5 billion annually and could produce thousands of additional pilots. To receive such scholarships, students could be obligated to serve a specified period as U.S. commercial pilots or in the active or reserve armed forces.

2. Raise the Mandatory Retirement Age 

Another helpful action would be to increase the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots. Japan has already raised its maximum age to 67. In 2009, after several comprehensive studies, the FAA raised the U.S. age limit to 65 from 60. As a research psychologist in the FAA’s Office of Aviation Medicine, I reviewed much of the data used to modify this regulation.

There appears to have been little if any impact on airline safety since that change was implemented. Raising this age to 70, perhaps in increments, should now be considered. However, establishing a cadre of “aviation behavioral examiners” might be needed. They, along with aviation medical examiners, periodically could evaluate whether aging pilots continue to be fit to fly. These clinicians also could help monitor the mental health of aviators who are identified as having potential problems, as was obviously the case for the Germanwings Flight 9525 copilot. 

3. Adopt an Enhanced Multi-Crew Pilot (MCP) License 

The International Civil Aviation Organization approved the MCP license concept in 2006. Thus, in many countries, airline first officers are now only required to have 240 hr., usually at highly structured ground schools and with extensive training in sophisticated simulators. Furthermore, several major international carriers have used similar ab initio training programs for decades, and the U.S. military has always allowed first officers with less than 300 hr. to fly its transports. While the MCP standards are minimal, an enhanced version of the program would better address the needs of U.S. airlines. I have proposed an Airline Transport Copilot (ATC) license. This ATC license would require that instrument-rated, commercial pilots pass the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) written and knowledge exams and obtain first-class medical certificates. These applicants should then receive a minimum of 25 additional hr. of airline-oriented flight training and at least 100 hr. of academic training in such subjects as cockpit automation, turbine engines, next-generation air traffic management, high-altitude operations and crew resource management (CRM). ATC applicants should also undergo a minimum of 25 additional hr. in Level C or D (full-motion) flight simulators. Finally, these applicants would be required to pass ATP-like check rides conducted in glass cockpit-equipped multiengine aircraft and/or simulators capable of representing modern turbine-powered airliners. 

The hiring carrier would then be responsible for ensuring that ATC-rated airmen, after careful screening, are type-rated in their assigned equipment. And they should only fly with experienced captains (those having a minimum of 3,000 hr.). These neophyte copilots should undergo simulator or aircraft check rides every six months until they upgrade their ATCs to ATPs. During that period, they also should be enrolled in a continuing-education program. Organizations such the Flight Safety Foundation, the Air Line Pilots Association and the FAA’s own Civil Aerospace Medical Institute have developed a host of valuable training materials. The FAA could develop a list of approved courses, most or all of which could be taken online. 

This type of highly structured training and certification regimen would be far superior to the current system, where a typical applicant accumulates most of the required 1,500 hr. by instructing students in general-aviation aircraft. This new system would also benefit such pilots, because even though regional first-officer pay might still be low, it would be far better than spending a couple of years eking out a living as a flight instructor. Furthermore, the endless hours spent watching students drone around traffic patterns does little to prepare a pilot to assume airline first-officer duties. Lastly, some regional airlines complain they are now forced to hire pilots with more than 1,500 hr., rather than other candidates with much better qualifications.

The advent of an ATC program should not negate the current FAA Restricted ATP training requirements. That program allows military aviators to become airline pilots with as little as 750

hr., or aviation majors with degrees from four-year colleges with 1,000 hr., and those from two-year programs with 1,250 hr. In fact, the ATC concept should become an element of the Restricted ATP program to comply with the congressional mandate resulting from the Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident. Ironically, both pilots in that crash had well over 1,500 hr. Their problems involved fatigue, misunderstanding cockpit automation and crew resource management. Another cogent argument for establishing the ATC license is to promote harmonization with the widely accepted training requirements of other nations. 

Given clarion warnings of a global pilot shortfall by the likes of Boeing, our government and industry leaders need to address this issue in a timely fashion. That may involve looking past interest groups with agendas that want to point fingers at “greedy unions” or “penny-pinching airline managers” and even some highly experienced individual pilots who complain that they have taken foreign airline jobs because of low pay in the U.S. or union-imposed seniority practices. 

Clearly the time has come to stop the acrimony and pull together to address this problem. The best solution is the multipronged approach involving those concepts outlined above. And my notional suggestions on various minimal hours should be evaluated by a panel of independent experts before the FAA commits to rule-making. 

Obviously, all these changes must be implemented without compromising the U.S.’s outstanding airline safety record. Thinking back to the most recent U.S. catastrophic accidents—such as American Airlines Flight 587, Colgan 3407 and Comair 5191—or the even more recent losses by various overseas carriers including Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia, TransAsia, and, yes, even Germanwings, none of the tragic events seems to have been associated with a lack of flying skills due to pilot inexperience.

The ideal airline pilot candidate is an Air Force Academy graduate with 2,000-plus hr. in C-17s, but the numbers just are not there. Our industry may want to take a page from the American medical playbook. When that industry discovered there were just not enough physicians, they developed nurse-practitioner and physician-assistant programs to fill the gap. Maybe it’s time with this nation’s airline industry to wake up and smell the Jet A. 

Diehl holds an ATP license and a certified flight instructor rating and spent more than 40 years as an aircraft designer, NTSB investigator, FAA psychologist and U.S. Air Force technical adviser. He drafted the NTSB recommendation that launched CRM training, analyzed the FAA requirements for certifying automated two-pilot airliners and trained Air Force One crews. He is the author of Air Safety Investigators: Using Science to Save Lives—One Crash at a Time.