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US airlines about to be hit with ‘tsunami’ of pilot retirements

<i>Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</i><br/>US airlines are about to be hit with a 'tsunami' of pilot retirements. Pilots walk through the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 2021 in Arlington
Getty Images
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
US airlines are about to be hit with a 'tsunami' of pilot retirements. Pilots walk through the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 2021 in Arlington

By Greg Wallace, CNN

The US airline industry is about to be hit with a “tsunami of pilot retirements” that will further the nation’s pilot shortage, limiting flight availability for passengers and putting upward pressure on fares, an industry group told Congress Wednesday.

“The pilot shortage has resulted in a collapse in air service,” Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association, told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing in prepared remarks.

More than half of pilots working today hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next 15 years and younger pilots are not making up for those aging out.

The “severe and ongoing pilot shortage” is nationwide, Black noted: 42 states have less airline service now than before the pandemic, 136 airports have lost at least a quarter of their service, and airlines have completely cut off flights to 11 airports in smaller cities that connect to larger hubs.

More than 500 planes belonging to regional airlines are sitting idle without enough pilots to fly them, and those that do fly are used as much as 40% less than in the past.

Most airlines have yet to fully restore the service cuts they made during the pandemic, even in the face of record bookings at some carriers. That combination of limited capacity and strong demand is leading to fares that are significantly above pre-pandemic levels.

Black’s group represents the regional carriers which provide feeder service for the larger airlines such as American, United and Delta. Those major airlines are also facing shortages of pilots, but they’ve been hiring pilots away from the regional carriers, causing an even worse problem for passengers and cities which depend on them.

The large airlines hired more than 13,000 pilots in 2022, according to Black, nearly all from the smaller carriers that the RAA represents. More pilots earned licenses last year than ever before, but those 9,500 new entrants were not enough to keep pace with demand.

Black said the cost of training for a new pilot can be $80,000, with total costs reaching $200,000 when combined with the cost of a bachelor’s degree. She said federal financial aid is insufficient to give poorer students a chance become pilots.

“Unlike other career paths that require additional professional credentialing, such as doctors and lawyers, accredited pilot training programs can’t access additional lending available through graduate aid programs to cover the higher costs,” she said in her prepared remarks.

The demand for pilots will continue to grow, Black forecasts. Fewer than 8% of the pilot workforce are under the age of 30, and many are entering the cockpit as a second career.

“These pilots were long called to the career path but were only able to surmount the financial obstacles later in life after they had built up their own savings and credit histories,” Black said in her prepared remarks.

But the union representing most US airline pilots urged Congress against changing pilot qualification and training standards in an attempt to address the pilot shortage, saying some ideas would compromise safety.

“This is no time to weaken safety standards,” Jason Ambrosi, President of the Air Line Pilots Association told the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation.

Thanks to requirements put in place after a series of airline crashes, “passenger fatalities have dropped by 99.8 percent,” he said.

“This pilot training framework has also produced tens of thousands more pilots over the last decade than airlines needed,” Ambrosi said, pushing back on arguments from the Regional Airline Association and others in the industry that there are not enough qualified pilots.

“The United States has certificated nearly 64,000 airline transport pilots since July of 2013 while airlines have hired to fill approximately 40,000 positions,” he added.

The Regional Airline Association, representing carriers that connect major cities to smaller regional airports, noted that the airlines are not the only destination for pilots with that qualification and warned of a significant pilot shortage that will get worse with a “tsunami” of retirements. Companies that fly business or charter planes are also hiring, RAA chief Black said.

But Ambrosi argued that the airlines are under-staffed right now because they are not providing pilots adequate pay and quality of life conditions, and because of management decisions made during the pandemic.

“The current labor market is complicated by pilots moving among carriers as they leave airlines that offer less attractive careers for those offering better pay and quality of life.”

He also pushed back on arguments for raising the pilot retirement age.

A proposal to increase the mandatory retirement age by two years to 67 would cause airline scheduling headaches, he said. Senior airline pilots frequently fly international routes, but international rules have an age 65 limit. When pressed on other pilot positions, such as charter aircraft, allowing pilots to work until age 70, Ambrosi said he did not represent those workers.

The hearing also discussed a significant lack of diversity among pilots who tend to be mostly male and mostly white, and potential ways to address that issue, which could also help address any pilot shortages.

There was a widely acknowledged shortage of pilots even before the pandemic. The airlines received billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic, with a prohibition not to layoff staff, in an effort to make sure the shortage didn’t get worse. But to save money, many airlines offered buyouts and early retirement packages to trim costs during the pandemic. The pandemic also interrupted the pipeline of new pilots.

— Chris Isidore contributed to this report

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