To be a pilot has long been the aspiration of the adventuresome. The word conjures images of Lindberg, Earhart, Saint-Exupéry, and Yeager. Most of us think of this career as being romantic, with great benefits both financial and experiential. Now, the promise of flying the heavens may just not be enough.

For the first time in decades, the aviation industry may be facing a serious shortage of pilots, particularly in the U.S. Many factors are aligning that may well create a dearth of new talent in the cockpit. New flight, duty and rest rules will drive the demand for more pilots. Starting in the summer of 2013, FAA mandates will require that all new first-officers meet the qualification rule requiring 1,500 flight hours– six times the current requirement of 250 hours.

Other factors are also causing concern: the first large-scale retirements have begun (despite the retirement age increase from 60 to 65 in 2007); rest periods are now increasing from 8-10 hours with eight hours of continuous sleep required; international carriers are hiring U.S.-trained pilots at higher salaries; and, young people are concerned about the investment in pilot training which may only yield meager salaries and benefits.  A major reduction in the number of military pilots transitioning to the airlines rounds out the factors.

Finding qualified pilots is a global challenge. In a 2012 report from Boeing, the company forecasts the need for 460,000 new commercial pilots over the next two decades. The report found “a pilot shortage has already arisen in many regions of the world,” particularly in Asia, where the gap was causing delays and other flight interruptions. The Asia-Pacific region will need 185,600 new pilots, the most of any region, the report calculated. North America will require 69,000.

In the 2011 FAA Aviation Forecast, it was predicted that commercial air traffic will more than double in the next 20 years if the world economy improves and spurs leisure travel. However, 64% fewer Private Pilot certificates were issued in 2010 than in 1990. This is due to an escalated student dropout rate of 70-80%.

The question of how these new requirements will affect the Part 135 segment is intriguing because pilots moving to Part 121 are now going to need the 1,500 hours, which puts [Part] 135 operations in a different position as well. Smaller feeder organizations are already facing problems. Regional airlines may have great difficulty in providing the salary and benefits to compete with national and international carriers.

No one seems sure of how to address this multi-faceted issue.

One idea has been suggested by John Duncan, FAA deputy director of flight standards, who has requested support for a “U.S. aviation academy.” It would use four-year universities to train pilots and mechanics and leverage financial backing so the costs of training would not be overwhelming. The time for action is now. It’s never too late to do something. (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

 

 

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