March 11, 2014

The lack of opportunities for aspiring pilots to build flight time required to advance to the right seat of a regional airliner is among the factors leading to the shortage of qualified pilots now confronting the U.S. airline industry, according to a study recently published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) at the request of lawmakers and industry stakeholders.

NBAA was part of a coalition of aviation associations, regional and major airlines, and universities with aviation programs that participated in the GAO study, titled “Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots.” The GAO also interviewed groups representing airlines and airline pilots, as well as officials with mainline and regional airlines, pilot training programs and industry organizations.

The study examined airline pilot hiring and retention data from 2000 to 2012, and hiring forecasts for 2013 to 2022.

“Everyone has a sense that there’s a shortage of qualified pilots looming, but we wanted to go deeper into the actual data,” said NBAA’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Brown. “We encouraged the GAO to conduct a broad-based study of the evidence, so that the public would benefit from such an objective review.”

The study confirmed many industry observations concerning the dwindling ranks of qualified pilot candidates, noting that age-mandated pilot retirements and other attrition in the ranks of existing commercial pilots continues to outpace the rate of new hires.

“Evidence suggests that the supply pipeline is changing as fewer students enter and complete collegiate pilot-training programs and fewer [retired] military pilots are available than in the past,” the study noted. “If the predictions for future demand are realized and shortages continue to develop, airlines may have to make considerable operational adjustments to compensate for having an insufficient number of pilots.”

Although the study focused on FAR Part 121 commercial carriers, the GAO did call attention to the vital role that general aviation plays in helping aspiring candidates build flight time. That important task has become significantly hindered, the study noted, as “fewer jobs are available in general aviation and non-airline commercial sectors for pilots to accrue the needed flight hours.”

Furthermore, commercial-pilot requirements increased last year with a congressionally driven mandate that all first officer candidates hold an air transport pilot rating, which requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours logged. Graduates of accredited two- and four-year university aviation programs may be eligible for slightly reduced minimum hourly totals, though even those modified requirements are substantially greater than previous minimums.

Low entry-level wages are another concern for the airline industry.

“The pilot supply is dwindling faster than the industry anticipated, and we’re seeing those effects in particular at the regional level,” Brown added. “Some [regional] carriers have already begun eliminating flights and service to smaller communities as a result.”

While a shortage of qualified pilots also affects other segments of the industry, Brown believes the business aviation workforce may fare better due to differences in compensation levels and duty patterns.

Review the GAO Study “Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots.” (PDF)