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Government report: Too few pilots or too little pay?

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The nation's regional airlines are having trouble hiring enough pilots, the government says, suggesting one reason may be that they simply don't pay enough.

A pool of qualified pilots is available, but it's unclear whether they are willing to work for low entry-level wages, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Friday.

One key economic indicator supports the emergence of a shortage, something regional airlines have complained of and point to as a reason for limiting service to some small communities. But two other indicators suggest the opposite is true, GAO said. Also, two studies reviewed by the GAO "point to the large number of qualified pilots that exist, but may be working abroad, in the military or in another occupation, as evidence that there is adequate supply," the report said.

The U.S. airline industry will need to hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years due to an expected surge in retirements of pilots reaching age 65 and increased demand for air travel, the report said.

Eleven out of 12 regional airlines failed to meet their hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year, the report said. However, no major airlines were experiencing problems finding pilots.

Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings announced earlier this month that it planned to stop flying 27 of its 41 Embraer 50-seat jets because of the pilot shortage. Republic owns Chautauqua Airlines, Republic Airlines and Shuttle America.

Regional carriers account for about half of all domestic airline flights. One big concern is that communities served only by regional airlines will see their service reduced or eliminated. Five regional airlines told GAO they are already limiting service because of a pilot shortage.

Major airlines generally pay significantly higher salaries than regional carriers and frequently hire pilots from regionals. The average starting salary for first officers, also called co-pilots, at regional airlines is $22,400 a year, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

Earlier this month, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines ended service in a handful of small towns, citing a dearth of qualified pilots. The pilots association says Great Lakes pays newly hired first officers $16,500 a year.

"Data indicate that a large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand, but whether such pilots are willing or available to work at wages being offered is unknown," the report said. And, the size of the pilot pool has remained steady since 2000, the report said.

There are currently 66,000 pilots working for U.S. airlines, but there are 109,465 currently active pilots with a first-class medical certificate who are licensed to fly airline passengers, the report said. An additional 100,000-plus pilots with commercial licenses might at some point choose to pursue an airline career, the report said

The unemployment rate for professional pilots is very low, only 2.7 percent. That would normally indicate a shortage, but that may not be the case, GAO said. Average professional pilot salaries went down 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2012, while the number of pilots employed went up 12 percent. Both trends are inconsistent with a shortage, the report said.

At the same time, pilot qualifications have been ramped up. Both captains and first officers need at least 1,500 hours of flying experience, although there are some exceptions. First officers used to need just 250 hours.

In a statement, the trade group for regional airlines blamed that rule for the pilot shortage and called on Congress to address it. "Its impact has proven more immediate and significant than analysts predicted," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association.

The new regulations stem from an aviation safety law Congress passed more than three years ago following the 2009 crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that was blamed on pilot error. All 49 people on board and a man on the ground were killed. An investigation revealed that the first officer had been paid only about $16,000 the previous year, her first year at the airline. The captain was earning about $63,000. The Continental Connection flight was operated by the now-defunct regional carrier Colgan Air Inc.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that both pilots were suffering from fatigue, although the board stopped short of citing fatigue as a contributor to the crash. Neither pilot had slept in a bed the night prior to the fatal flight. The first officer, who lived at home with her parents, commuted across the country overnight in a jump seat in order to make the fatal flight.

Afterwards, some lawmakers questioned whether the pilots could afford hotel rooms on their salaries and said raising the qualifications for entry-level pilots would force airlines to pay more for greater experience.

So far, that doesn't appear to be happening. The average new pilot at 14 regional airlines is paid about $24 per hour for the first year of employment, GAO said. Hourly wages increase for the second year on the job for first officers to about $30. The average hourly pay for first officers at a major carrier is $48.

Classroom work and flight training in a 4-year program to qualify for commercial flying can cost well in excess of $100,000. Pilot schools GAO interviewed reported fewer students entering their programs because of the disparity between high education costs and low entry-level pay at regional airlines.

"People aren't going to work for $22,000 again, and the reason they're not going to do it is they spend $100,000 or so to get their certification, and you can live on that amount of money, pay your student loans off and function," said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Some regional airlines have offered new first officers signing bonuses or tuition reimbursement to attract more pilots, the report said.

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  • Truly Uninformed
    You could not be more misinformed. I worked for a regional airline for 5 years. I can assure you that it is difficult and stressful work. Also, your ideas about obtaining high paying jobs with major airlines have No basis in reality.
  • I'll pay a few bucks extra
    So, if a regional pilot makes $30/hour (remember: they are only paid for actual scheduled flight time, not all the prep time and down time before, between, and after flights) let's assume that costs the airline $50/hour with taxes and benefits. Let's assume the average regional airline flight is no more than two hours long. To double the pay of the two pilots would cost the regional airline about $200 per flight ($50/hour times two pilots times two hours). Divide that number by an average of 50 passengers per regional flight(probably low) and you get $4 per passenger. So, for an extra $4 per flight (or perhaps less), we could double the pay of pilots on regional airlines. Who would stop flying because of a $4/flight ticket increase? Is this an example of under-regulated capitalism at its worst. Are the airlines shrewdly choosing to pocket a few extra dollars rather than pay pilots a salary commensurate with what 90% of the public believes they should be paid, simply because they can. With the ever decreasing number of airlines due to mergers, and the accompanying lack of competition, it is hard for consumers to choose an airline based on how they treat their employees. Should the government step in to create a minimum wage for pilots?
  • Something to think about...
    As an airline pilot there are a few misconceptions posted here I would like to clear up. About 99% of the time we are in flight we are there to monitor the computers while they do most of the work. However when something goes wrong you need someone experienced at the controls able to work on the problems. When a UAV has a major issue and they cannot land it, they destroy it airborne, which would not work for passenger flights. Would you want to sit in the back of a full airliner knowing that there were no pilots on board, no one that could listen to the sounds of the plane, or feel what was happening? What if radio contact was lost to the ground? A second thing to consider when you are getting on a flight operated by a regional airline. In order to keep the costs down they work their crews to the maximum allowed by law, which means that the crews are very tired. There have been days where Im working after only 3-4 hours sleep, and doing 12+ hour days. Some times I can count the number of hours of sleep my whole crew got on 2 hands and not use all my fingers. The pilots in the Colgan crash in Buffalo made a series of small mistakes that culminated in the crash; after that crash Colgan went out of business. When you get on your next plane just think about you sitting in your seat and wondering if your pilots combined got the recommended amount of sleep last night for one person. All the background pressure and stress of the job making less than someone can at McDonnalds? To comment on Tyrone Biggums comment that in a few years you will be on to majors making great money. I have been with my company for approaching a decade, while I was lucky and made captain a while ago, I have flown with many people who have been stuck as first officers for 6+ years, making low wages and becoming so negative and disgruntled that they don't really care anymore. Just something to think about when you sit down on your next flight.
  • Commercial Drones
    Using drone technology is an interesting proposition. It would eliminate the need to fly pilots across the nation to eliminate a staffing shortage and other issues. Should an emergency arise, you would likely have better decision-making because of lessened fear and panic by the pilot. On the other hand, I am not sure I would want to fly on a plane where the pilot did not have as much at stake as I do if there is an error. With respect to pay for pilots vs. burger-flippers, that is one of the shortfalls of a capitalistic system. I love the low fares competition and capitalism has created, but do I truly understand the potential dangers those forces have created until it is too late? Do the corporate executives?
  • I want a Happy and Well Paid Pilot
    Regional or Not...that seems like an CRAZY low amount to pay someone who is flying a plane with quite a few human lives depending on their ability to land and take off safely. I want a happy and well paid pilot who LOVES the important job they do when my family and I fly.
  • Very Troubling News
    And they are trying to get the minimum wage for burger flippers increased to $10/hour ($20,800/year)??? Gotta better middle ground here.
    • Drones replace pilots
      How about replacing all pilots with drone systems. Cuts the cost.
    • re: Pilots Aren't What They Used To Be
      Planes don't land themselves, though.
    • Pilots Aren't What They Used To Be
      I have several friends who are commercial airline pilots. They all make six figures. They all started as first officers with these regional airlines. Does it stink? Sure. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that in a few years, you're one of the most overpaid professionals on this planet. Back in the day, pilots were handsomely compensated b/c they actually piloted. These days, even my pilot friends joke that they basically pull back on the yolk, hit autopilot, and play on their iPads. If they aren't napping.... I'm not saying there isn't skill involved or that they deserve some huge pay decrease, but let's not also characterize them as fighter pilots who have your life in their hands at ever turn. That's the computer that handles that part.
      • Who would take that job?
        If you aren't terrified by the idea that your life is in the hands of a recent-grad making under $23k when you fly on regional jets/airlines then you've got a screw loose. And if these people can't figure out why they can't find pilots--newsflash, it's the paycheck, idiots! Pilots were once some of the wealthiest professionals that weren't doctors or lawyers... Now they're just working stiffs barely able to keep their eyes open on the 0615 to Raleigh-Durham.

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