SALT LAKE CITY — Some economic indicators have aviation industry experts nervous that a pilot shortage is on the way. But representatives of major airlines like Delta say they still see a strong flow of applicants despite fears from some regional affiliates concerned about the future of filling pilot seats.
According to a report issued last year by the Regional Airline Association, the major airlines will need to replace 18,000 pilots within the next seven years who reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. The report also says there is a diminishing of new air transport pilot licenses, the highest certification given by the Federal Aviation Administration, which certifies pilots to fly commercial freight and passenger planes.
The major airlines get the benefit of ex-military pilots as well as pilots with seniority at regional airlines to fill empty cockpit seats. But regional lines rely on new pilot school graduates to fill in voids from departing pilots.
With relatively low starting pay, an increase in hours required for certifications, and the cost of college and flight school, the numbers of students completing programs is low and drawing concern, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The average cost of a four-year degree and flight training is $50,000 per year. But average starting wages for new pilots with the regional airlines has remained stagnant in the mid-$20,000s.
“It takes a certain stamina to hang in there. The ones that do are going to be great,” said Jim Green, retired airline pilot and associate professor with Utah Valley University’s School of Aviation Science. Green said the school attrition rate assures that the quality of the students moving on is high with good job prospects.
Utah Valley University is unique because total estimated cost for the university tuition and flight training expenses totals about $18,700 per year, making it one of the least expensive in the nation.
Still, the cost tops Utah's average annual tuition for public universities, $12,354, according to The College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the oldest and largest aeronautics college in the country, with campuses in Daytona Beach, Florida and Prescott, Arizona, costs more than that average. Annual costs are about $32,000 per year for tuition and fees, in addition to $33,000 for the first two years and about $10,000 for the last two years of flight training.
But neither program has exemplary graduation rates. UVU's Aviation Science Department only graduates 7 percent of the average 300-350 students entering the program within four or five years of their start date. That jumps to 13.4 percent completing the program within 7 years.
From 2004 to 2013, Embry-Riddle's graduation rate was 2.3 percent of aeronautical science majors in the advertised three years. About 21 percent graduated after four years and 30 percent finished the program after six years.
Boeing projects that the global industry will need 558,000 new pilots in the next 20 years to meet demand, 95,000 new pilots in the U.S. alone. Not meeting the demand could mean diminished service from regional airliners, higher fare prices and a weakened national infrastructure, Green said
But that also means there is an opportunity for young people entering the program, if they stick it out.
“The supply-demand curve is shifting in their favor,” Green said. “There has never been a better opportunity and there is no better job than being an airline pilot.”
Roger Cohen, former president of the Regional Airline Association, said earlier this year that American Airlines will lose 61 percent of its pilots. Delta, with a hub in Salt Lake City, will lose 47 percent, with Southwest Airlines losing 40 percent.
These retirements have potential to place a strain on regional airlines that are already experiencing fewer flights. Regional airliners hire new pilots from flight training and work with them as first officers (co-pilots) as they work to get their pilot training and increase their flight hours.
The new candidates work for regional airlines until they have a experience and seniority, and then they either are recruited by or apply for jobs with major airlines. The major airlines often offer better pay, benefits and time off.
Salaries going into most major airlines range from $60,000 to $80,000, compared to the average wage of entry-level regional airliners in the mid-$20,000s, Green said. He said most senior pilots at major airlines today can make $300,000 in annual salaries with benefits.
In addition to the mandatory retirement age, changes by Congress in response to the 2009 Colgan Air crash increased the number of hours that pilots-to-be need to fly from 1,000 hours to 1,500 hours. That places a greater burden on students and regional airlines to develop the number of hours required to certify.
The GAO report states that regional airliners are both dissatisfied by the quality of entry-level candidates with the increased hour change and eleven of twelve regional airlines interviewed in the study were not able to reach hiring goals.
Despite the cost of training, Green said it is worth it.
“You work eight to 12 days a month and make up to $300,000 a year,” Green said about being a senior pilot with a major airline. Green himself retired in 2007 after 26 years working for United Airlines, spending 21 years as a pilot.
Boeing reports that global demand for pilots is largest in the Asia-Pacific market.
A growing — but tempered — Chinese economy is prompting airlines in China to pay qualified American commercial airline pilots more than $200,000 starting out. Further, the Asia-Pacific market will need 226,000 new pilots by 2035. Expatriates who are certified to fly the largest airplanes are being paid up to $300,000 according to Green.
With a void in the pipeline, airlines in the U.S. are re-evaluating the pay structure for entry-level employment, some are adding signing bonus incentives, and the industry as a whole is going on a hiring splurge.
“Schools like ours (flight schools) are getting wined and dined because everyone wants our students,” Green said, noting that Utah Valley University is in talks with airlines to set up school-to-job bridge agreements.
UVU already has a “bridge agreement” with SkyWest Airlines that promises qualified students guaranteed interview for first officer positions, mentorship and recruitment involvement.
SkyWest increased its first and second year pay earlier this year. SkyWest is now in talks with UVU to produce and hire a substantially larger number of new pilots from the university, Green said.
SkyWest announced last week that it will add 18 more aircraft to its fleet bringing the total number of aircraft to 262. Skywest communications director Marissa Snow said that SkyWest will announce changes to routes closer to the delivery and implementation of the new aircraft late in 2016.
Endeavor Air, a Delta Air Lines subsidiary, is offering recruits from 2015 to 2018 an $80,000 signing bonus doled out over four years in addition to starting salaries as a way to help new employees who incur student debt.
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