A growing pilot shortage in the United States is pushing the Department of Transportation to consider reducing the required number of flight hours for new pilots. The American Airline Pilot Association says that reducing that requirement would undermine passenger safety.
During a Washington Post Live event last week, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said there needs to be a “robust discussion” with Congress about the rule that requires co-pilots to achieve 1,500 hours of flying before they are able to operate a US passenger or cargo airliner. The rule for co-pilots. also known as first officers, went into effect in 2013 following the fatal Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in upstate New York four years earlier. A lobbying effort led by victims’ families, who said the pilots on that flight had been inexperienced, led to the rule. (Both captain and first officer on that flight had well over 1,500 hours of flight time, incidentally.)
“There is this side effect, unanticipated corollary impact of reducing the number of pilots — pilots who can very safely fly in our skies,” Chao said during the event. “So I think that Congress needs to have this discussion and we will abide by the wishes of Congress.”
The US pilot shortage results from a variety of factors. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates pilots to retire by age 65. By the end of 2026, 42% of active pilots at the five largest airlines will retire, according to a 2017 report by Cowen & Company. The report also says that in the US, roughly 790 pilots will retire each year leading up to 2026.
That’s going together with an increase in air travel, as measured by the International Air Transport Association. IATA expects the US air passenger market to increase 5.6 percent annually over the next 20 years. Boeing, the world’s largest maker of commercial airplanes, predicts that by 2036, North America will need 117,000 new commercial pilots to meet air travel demands and make up for the number of pilots leaving the industry.
Despite the need for more pilots, the American Airline Pilot Association says that reducing the number of required flight hours is a step in the wrong direction, and having experienced pilots in their cockpits is the group’s number one priority.
“The debate on this by the side that wants to change the safety standard, that has worked so well since its implementation, is financially driven,” said Captain Dennis Tajer, the APA’s Communication Committee Chairman. Pilots, he said, “will not tolerate a margin of safety degrade.”
Tajer has been an American Airlines pilot for 25 years. He’s been flying 737s for eight years and has been a captain for four, and has six years of military and combat experience. “I can assure you that the last thing I want to see sitting to the right of me, my first officer, is someone who came in under a lower standard of experience,” he said. And the 1,500 hours must be completed before flying airliners, not during: “To get that experience with 70, 160, 300 people on the airplane is not (the) time to do it.”
Bijan Vasigh, a professor of economics and finances at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, agreed that aircraft safety could be compromised by reducing the number of required flight hours, and that experience minimizes accidents.
“[Pilot] shortage could be overcome, rather than by cutting hours, by having applicable training for more people, making the job for the pilot more effective, and higher wages,” Vasigh said.
But not everybody agrees that there actually is a pilot shortage in the first place.
“You have to start this conversation by dividing the industry in half. You have to look at the major carriers and regional carriers,” said Patrick Smith, who flies as a first officer for a major US airline. Smith has written extensively on the pilot shortage. Fundamentally, he says, the shortage exists only at regional carriers, not at the majors like Delta, American or United. Those are able to find highly qualified pilots because they’re able to pull from the military and the regional airline ranks.
“The regional themselves are having a hard time finding pilots, this has been something a long time coming. It’s frankly due to the fact that in so many ways these are not desirable jobs. The pay is substandard, the working conditions are substandard, in some cases hostile,” said Smith.
According to Smith, there is no need for more pilots, but for an industry change to make the job more desirable at the regional carriers where many pilots get their start — and lowering the 1,500 flight hour requirement is not the solution. Not before defining exactly what happens during that time.
“Having 1,500 hours, what does that mean? What is that quality of that time? Is it a reflection of how talented or skillful you are as a pilot? Not necessarily,” said Smith. “The flip side is that although a candidate with a much lower total time could be an excellent pilot, he or she doesn’t have the intangibles that come from experience.”
Featured image of Southwest Airlines pilots by Liz West.