Airline pilots are in demand due to a shortage created by the strong economy, military slowdown

Tuesday, July 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Airlines are waking up to a shortage of qualified pilots that has led to flight cancellations, reduced schedules and changes in the way that carriers hire.

The problem is fueled by a hiring boom now in its sixth year of record-setting employment growth. About 18,000 pilots are expected to be hired this year alone.

"Every year has been better than the last," said Kit Darby, president of AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in pilot career consulting.

The number of pilots flying the nation's big passenger and cargo jets grew from 97,000 in 1988 to 134,612 in 1998, the last year for which figures are available, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The economic boom is making it all possible. The good times mean that more people can afford to fly more often, forcing carriers to buy more planes. But airlines are having trouble finding the people to staff the cockpits.

United Airlines canceled hundreds of flights in recent weeks because many of its pilots don't want the overtime – a situation that the company attributes to contract negotiations and that union leaders blame on poor airline planning. And within the last year, three U.S. regional airlines were forced to reduce schedules because they didn't have enough pilots.

There's no slowdown in sight.

The FAA projects that the number of U.S. airline passengers will grow from 665 million people last year to more than a billion people in 2011.

Complicating the airlines' recruitment efforts is a surge in retirements among pilots who signed up when the carriers rapidly expanded at the dawn of the jet age in the mid-1960s.

"What we're seeing right now is retirements are about half of the demand," Mr. Darby said.

There has also been a slowdown in military pilot training, a longtime source of potential hires. Six years ago, 80 percent of the nation's new pilots had been trained in the armed forces. That number has dropped to about 50 percent today.

So airlines have abolished some of the restrictions that once were used to discourage applicants. Some examples:

ilots once were banned from cockpit duty if they didn't have perfect vision. Today, about 25 percent of new pilots wear glasses or contact lenses – although the FAA requires that their vision can be corrected to 20/20.

ge is no longer the factor it once was. A decade ago, the average new pilot was in his or her late 20s. Today, the average age is over 30. Height and weight restrictions have also been liberalized.
"They're taller, shorter and fatter," Mr. Darby said. "The airlines have gone from keeping the door closed to opening the door and letting them in."

nited Airlines has eliminated its application fee. And Southwest Airlines now accepts applications year-round; it used to limit applications to one or two days a year.
"We're getting about the same number, but now it's a steady stream," said Linda Burke Rutherford, a spokeswoman at the Dallas-based airline.

Regionals hit hard

The demand for pilots also has a trickle-down effect. Regional airlines, charter carriers and the military are watching their aviators leave in droves for the name-brand airlines.

"Some of these smaller companies are losing a pilot a day. That's difficult over time," Mr. Darby said. "When you lose 60 percent of your pilots in turnover, that's a problem."

The smaller airlines also are loosening requirements for new pilots.

"All the carriers are becoming much more creative in their recruiting practices," said Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association.

A few years ago, regional carriers required that pilots have at least 1,500 total flying hours and 500 hours of experience with multi-engine planes. Now, most demand 1,000 to 1,200 total hours and 100 multi-engine hours. (The FAA requires just 250 hours of flight time to earn a commercial pilot's license.)

"Some regional carriers have adjusted their hiring minimums to take into account market conditions," Ms. McElroy said.

American Eagle, which plans to hire 600 before year's end, lowered its minimum requirements this year to 1,000 hours of flight time, down from 1,500 hours. "The average hire still has about 1,800 hours," American Eagle spokesman Mark Slitt said. "But it's a response as everybody industrywide is competing for candidates."

Pentagon problem

The military, meanwhile, is worried about its ability to attract and keep aviators.

Pentagon officials admit that they underestimated the need for military pilots after the Cold War ended. But they have been surprised that so many of their pilots have bailed out of the service in recent years.

The Air Force predicts a shortage of nearly 2,000 pilots by 2002. The Navy and Coast Guard also are expecting shortfalls.

The Pentagon has responded to the crisis by offering re-enlistment bonuses and increasing pay. Still, no relief is expected well into this decade.

"In the interim, we face one of the most serious pilot force challenges in Air Force history," the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Navy also has cut down the time it takes to train its fliers. And it's considering a "fly-only" career path for pilots who don't want administrative jobs.

Analysts say the changes are unlikely to help as long as the major airlines are hiring at record rates.

"It's all due to the gross national product, the economy and profits at the airlines," Mr. Darby said. "A recession could cool it off."