As a boy growing up in upstate New York, Travis Evans was captivated by flying. Now, that love of the air has been grounded by his finances. Evans, 32, joined the Air Force after high school, and then decided to go to school to become a commercial airline pilot. He enrolled in New York’s Dowling College — but then reality set in.
Even with his degree, he’d have nowhere near the 1,500 hours required to become even a co-pilot. Accumulating those hours would cost thousands of dollars, so Evans began to back off his dream.
“I had so much momentum, was going into it with this drive, but once the financial aspects started to take over, it was really discouraging,” he said. “It wasn’t that I’m medically disqualified, not that I wasn’t able to overcome the material. Every time I’d come to an obstacle, I’d overcome it, but the financial aspect put a stop to it right there.”
Evans’ experience is becoming a typical one for many young pilots, and is creating a pilot shortage at regional airline carriers that could ripple up to the big commercial airlines.
In early 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found all but one of the 12 regional airlines interviewed for a report were having trouble finding pilots.
It also found that over the next 10 years, airlines will need up to 4,500 new pilots a year, but many pilots are either working overseas or in the military, and that pilot schools reported fewer students “resulting from concerns over the high costs of education and low entry-level pay at regional airlines.”
In 2014, Republic, Great Lakes and Silver regional airlines said they cut the amount of flights offered because of a pilot shortage, according to USA Today. And one of those airlines — Republic Airways, which flies routes for Delta, United and American Airlines — last month filed for bankruptcy. The CEO blamed in part “a nationwide pilot shortage” in a statement.
Because regional airlines act as “farm teams” for the bigger national airlines, a drop in available pilots could also impact their ability to hire if not in quantity, then at least in quality, in the future, said Ron Peri, the CEO of Radixx International, which provides airlines with reservation and distribution systems.
“Major carriers will find it more difficult to get good talent,” he said. “In the short term, it will keep salaries high. In the long term, it will create a problem in finding capable pilots.”
The pipeline is broken
There used to be a system that carried the best pilots up to captains’ seats at large carriers like American, United and Delta. A pilot might get his or her start in the military, then transition to working for a small regional airline, first as a co-pilot, then a pilot. Those jobs paid poorly — as low as $20,000 a year to start — but the good pilots wouldn’t stay forever.
“After acquiring enough flight time, they would graduate to a much higher paying job at a major carrier,” Peri said.
Over the past 20 years, the number of regional flights grew, and times were good for pilots, said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who writes the Ask The Pilot website.
“Thousands of new jobs were created,” he wrote. “To fill these slots, airlines sharply lowered their experience and flight time minimums for new-hires. Suddenly, pilots were being taken on with as little as 350 hours of total time, assigned to the first officer’s seat of sophisticated regional jets.”
Then, regional airlines started having crashes, most famously the Colgan Air disaster in Buffalo, New York, in 2009. Forty-nine people were killed due to errors made by the pilot and co-pilot. After that, Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration set up new rules requiring co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time — instead of the previous requirement of 250 hours — and for pilots to have 1,000 hours as a co-pilot.
Just like that, the pipeline was broken.
Fewer pilots to fly
James Record, an aviation professor at Dowling College, said other factors are also to blame for the regional airline pilot shortage. The military is using more drones and fewer aircraft, and so is training fewer pilots. Meanwhile, a mandatory retirement age of 65 means pilots from the Vietnam War era are phasing out.
“With the 1,500 hour rule, that sealed the fate,” Record said.
When his students finish college, they have their pilots licenses and about 300 hours of flight time.
“Now they have to pick up 1,200 hours someplace else,” he said.
That flight time can cost more than $100 an hour.
“You’re getting older, life goes on…and so you need to get a day job,” he said. “A lot of guys stop at around 400 to 500 hours and never make it to the cockpit.”
Even before the 1,500 hour requirement, airlines had problems finding pilots, and foreign carriers were drawing away U.S.-trained pilots, said Peri with Radixx International.
“The price of getting trained has increased substantially,” he said. “Getting a pilot’s license used to cost $500 to $600. Now, $15,000 to $20,000 is more typical.”
That’s been true for Evans, the Dowling College student who’s about ready to give up his dream of becoming a pilot.
“It’s so hard every time you go have to sign another promissory note, ask for more money,” he said. “I took out loans to go to school, then I’d need more loans to build hours. If you come out with a $100,000 investment into your education, that’s when I have to stop and look and say, I’m going to be earning $20,000 for the first few years. To hold on to that debt while trying to work at such a low income, I’m either going to be deferring loans and letting the interest run wild, or barely able to live.”
Adding all of that to the fact that he’d be in a job that constantly keeps him away from home, and Evans said he’s starting to think being a pilot isn’t worth it. Instead, he’s majoring in aviation management, which gives him the option of jobs managing airports.
“It’s hard to look at it when I have an aviation management degree that gives me access to thousands of jobs across the country instead of trying get in the door at a regional airline,” he said.
Still, he hasn’t completely ruled out being a pilot.
“What I’m looking at now is instead of borrowing thousands, I’ll have a day job and fly at my leisure to build hours, so I’m not paying interest on loans,” he said.
More aspiring pilots are taking unconventional routes.
Seth Rozzelle, an airline consultant and flight attendant, has always wanted to be a pilot.
“It’s almost like an infection that you can never get rid of,” he said.
He’s now taken out an $80,000 loan and signed up for an “Airline Pilot Bootcamp,” where he rents a plane and flies with an independent flight instructor, while also keeping his day job.
Rozzelle said he’s seeing more people with no aviation industry experience try to become pilots, thanks to an abundance of loans available for pilot schools.
“Schools across the country will place you in an immersive learning environment where you train seven days a week,” he said.
Schools will also hire graduates as trainers, which also allows them to stack up flying hours.
That’s a route that Record, the Dowling professor, said many of his students take as well.
He said while smaller regional carriers are feeling the pilot crunch now, it could hit bigger carriers in the future as the shortage moves up the pipeline.
JetBlue recently announced a pilot training program, which Record said is a good start.
“The difficulty is they charge $125,000 for training,” he said. “Where do you come up with that kind of money? What if you don’t make it through training? What if you have a medical problem half way through? Then you’re sitting there with a $125,000 debt to pay off.
Changes to the system
The 1,500 hour requirement is set to expire this fall, and many regional airlines are lobbying for it not to be renewed. Most of the experts interviewed for this story said the requirement was “knee-jerk,” unnecessary and should be ditched to fix the pilot shortage crisis.
That, or “airlines need to offer a training cadet program,” Rozzelle, the flight attendant, said.
“The more realistic option would be developing pilot training programs sponsored by the airlines directly.”
“Lowering the required hours would take a substantial amount of lobbying and legislative effort through Congress,” he said. “The more realistic option would be developing pilot training programs sponsored by the airlines directly. These programs have proven highly successful in other countries around the world.”
John Ginley, a 2015 graduate from Ohio State University’s aviation program, currently works for a cargo charter operator and teaches part time as a flight instructor. He said solutions are already being worked out outside of Congress.
“Aviation schools are trying to find ways to reduce cost, offer scholarships and promote the real advantages of the industry to bring in the students,” he said. “Mainly regional airlines are coming up with new and creative ways to bring in pilots and college grads earlier and providing more incentive.”
“PSA Airlines is offering what is called a ‘Cadet Program’ to which students can be PSA employees while in college, build their time, and guarantee an interview upon minimum requirement satisfaction,” he added. “Airlines are also working on pay. Things like signing bonuses, retention bonuses, and referral bonuses are terms being thrown around many airlines to help increase that first-year pay.”
Regional airlines paying more to compensate for the 1,500 hour cost, or paying for that training, would be another fix, said Record.
“What has to happen is airlines have to take a more active role in providing flight time,” he said. “If they have someone with 1,200 hours and say, we like you and want you as a pilot, so we will pay you for 300 hours so you can work here. They have to take some of the responsibility for getting people on the right path.”
If airlines don’t find more pilots, they may cut back the number of routes they fly, which in turn hurts their bottom line, he said.
For Smith, the Ask the Pilot writer and commercial airline pilot, life was different when he started in the industry 25 years ago. He worked for regionals for 10 years, then moved up to a major airline.
But, his reasons for pursuing the job sound very similar to those of Evans, the student on the verge of abandoning the dream.
“As with most pilots, it goes back to something that’s really ineffable from childhood,” Smith said. “Instead of doing homework, I’d stay up studying airline timetables and flight maps. I’d go to the airport on weekends and steal anything with an airline name on it. It was the grand theater of air travel, airlines, airports, going to different cities, all of that was the height of excitement to me.”