Republic Airline exec: Industry’s pilot shortage has wide-ranging implications

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The ongoing shortage of commercial pilots is an area of “critical urgency” whose effects reach far beyond the airline industry, a Republic Airline Inc. executive said Thursday.

“This is a real challenge that’s affecting economies across the country,” said Matt Koscal, chief administrative officer for the Indianapolis-based carrier.

Koscal was among several speakers at the Aerospace & Defense in Indiana breakfast, an industry event presented by IBJ, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and Conexus Indiana.

In recent years, Koscal said, airlines have switched to fleets with bigger planes, in part because there aren’t enough pilots to fly a greater number of smaller planes. When airlines have fewer planes in their fleets, they can’t cover as many routes.

As a result, he said, over the past five years more than 100 airports have lost a third of their air service. Another 20 have lost air service altogether.

And a cutback in air service can significantly affect a city’s larger economy.

As an example, Koscal cited the case of heavy-equipment maker Caterpillar Inc., which announced last year that it would move its corporate headquarters from Peoria, Illinois, to the Chicago suburb of Deerfield.

In making the announcement, Caterpillar specifically noted that its new offices would be minutes away from O’Hare International Airport.

The shortage has numerous causes. The existing pilot workforce is aging, and federal law requires commercial airline pilots to retire at age 65. The number of pilot retirements is predicted to peak in 2023, Koscal said. At the same time, the airline industry is growing worldwide. And tougher training standards implemented in 2013 for U.S. pilots make it more time-consuming—and costly—to become an airline pilot.

Republic’s own pilot shortage grew so acute in recent years that the regional airline didn’t have enough pilots to fly its contracted routes for American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. or United Airlines Inc. The situation led Republic to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2016.

New pilots for Republic typically fly for a few years before moving to a job with one of the major carriers. This creates a constant need for Republic to recruit new talent, because the airline loses about a third of its pilots each year, Koscal said.

Republic emerged from bankruptcy in April 2017, and it has taken numerous steps to beef up its hiring pipeline.

The airline has formed partnerships with 50 aviation schools around the country, and this year it established an in-house aviation training school. The program, called Leadership in Flight Training Academy, or LIFT Academy for short, started its first training class last month.

The solution to the industry’s pilot shortage needs to be multi-pronged, Koscal said, because the current educational infrastructure isn’t large enough to supply industry demand.

“We need 100 solutions like LIFT Academy in every sector of the industry, and we need them all across the country,” Koscal said.

Republic is an example of how employers and schools can work together, said fellow speaker Danny Lopez, chairman of the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, created this year by the Indiana Legislature to assess and realign development programs and services.

In order to meet the great demand for workers—especially in science, technology, engineering and math fields—employers must partner with schools so that students come out of school with relevant skills for today’s jobs.

“That has to happen. That is the new model,” Lopez said.

Several speakers also highlighted the importance of attracting a more diverse pool of talent.

Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, said white males are disproportionately represented in the aerospace and defense industries. 

A recently released Aerospace Industries Association survey revealed that women make up less than 25 percent of the nation’s aerospace and defense workforce, Fanning said.

Asians make up 10 percent of the industry’s workforce, while African Americans make up 7 percent, and Hispanics or Latinos make up 8 percent.

As a comparison, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that 6 percent of the nation’s population is Asian; 13 percent is African American; and 18 percent is Hispanic or Latino.

“We need to tap into the best of all of the country,” Fanning said.

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