The impending pilot shortage dilemma, or something like that


There are certain parties out there who would have us believe that the of qualified, employable pilots is rapidly shrinking and that the industry is headed towards a tipping point which may prove to be somewhat chaotic. When speaking to a group of charter flight operators last week FAA deputy director of flight standards John Duncan noted that the issue is "probably going to be a little painful. This is an interesting dilemma for the aviation community."

The rules regarding qualifications to be a commercial pilot are changing a bit, making it more difficult to get started. And the rules regarding duty time and rest mean that many airlines actually need more pilots just to maintain the status quo in terms of operations. So we’re doomed, right?

Maybe not.

It turns out that there is a growing number of young adults unwilling to incur significant debt to pursue work in a marketplace which is horribly unstable and not particularly generous with the pay and benefits in the early years. In other words, there are pilots and potential pilots out there; they just aren’t willing to work at the pay scale being offered to them. And I’m not entirely sure I can blame them.

Yes, eventually the salary and the quality of life gets better as seniority kicks in. But depending on the debt load required to get to that point (and that’s getting higher with the 1500 hour rule making it take longer to get licensed) it has become much harder for potential pilots to justify riding out that period in hopes of the great long-term future. Especially with the starting salary not increasing with any significance lately.

The FAA seems to be convinced that better education options would help address the issue. They’re lobbying for an "aviation academy" which will leverage existing 4-year universities to help ease the financial burden of the training process. It seems that perhaps they’ve taken a page out of the airlines’ play book, focusing on cutting costs more than on raising revenues. Of course, the FAA doesn’t get to tell the airlines how much to pay the pilots, so that’s not too surprising. Though the existing educational programs seem to be shrinking, not growing, so it isn’t particularly clear how that will work out. The airlines not wanting to raise the starting pay rate isn’t all that surprising either. But will they be able to continue operating as mandatory pilot retirements loom on the horizon? And can the unions adjust to make the entry-level positions more reasonably compensated?

Put another way, is the issue no pilots, or just no pilots willing to work for peanuts? Seems to me the latter is the issue.

More than anything, this sort of discussion has me convinced that burning the miles as quickly as I accrue them is the smart play. Being overly invested in a scheme where the account is nearly guaranteed to not appreciate in value is a bad place to be.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

18 Comments

  1. I do think entry pay will have to rise to attract new pilots, at least non-military-trained pilots.

    The economic non-viability of smaller jets due to fuel costs may make increased pilot pay at the regionals more viable.

    But I also think that the entire pilot seniority scheme and commuting culture ought to change, and that it would be in the long-term best interests of the pilots.

    Free commuting, especially for entry pilots, only serves to depress pilot wages. The pilots of the Colgan Q400 that crashed on approach to Buffalo were based in Newark. One commuted from Florida, and the other from Washington state. Both said they lived their for the lower living costs. (And of course neither slept properly the night before reporting for duty – one spent the night in a crew lounge, and the other in a jump seat of a Fedex freighter, with a 2 hour Memphis stopover.) If free commuting to a low cost city were no longer a job perq, pilot pay would need to increase for NY-based pilots, or perhaps the pilot base itself would shift to a lower cost location. In either event, pilots could afford to live at their base, not waste so much time commuting, and be better rested. Should be a win all around. Maybe commuting becomes a perq you can get after 10 years of service, or you have to pay a fee for each commute – both would serve the same purpose, to reduce commuting of entry level pilots and/or increase compensation to cover either the commute costs or the chance to afford to live at the base.

    The second problem with pilot compensation is how much it is tied to seniority at a single carrier. Wouldn’t pilot lives be improved if they could switch carriers, if they wanted to, without losing all their seniority benefits? The reasons to switch carriers could include that they want to work for a better management, or their carrier has changed the routes/markets it flies, or they want to move somewhere else and don’t want to have to commute or commute as far.

    For example, as Alaska or JetBlue expand, perhaps some AA or DL pilots would want to join AS or B6. Today they really cannot, not without a big sacrifice.

    The dependence on seniority really reduces pilot life flexibility. And future options if their carrier runs into trouble. Heck, maybe a pilot wants to do a stint in business aviation to see if they like that. The dependence on purely seniority with one carrier may also support the low pay for entering pilots, with the philosophy that you have to pay your dues, and then later you get paid more or have a cushier life. Maybe there needs to be more balance throughout the pilot’s career. Of course today’s senior pilots may have a vested interest against change, but is that really in the best interests of the pilots as a whole?

    It would be nice if a federation of pilot unions could have an industry-wide discussion and perhaps create something that is more akin to the guilds of writers, directors, and actors in Hollywood that lets them move between studios and productions without losing their benefits and seniority.

  2. Of course, another alternative would be for the airlines to assist in funding pilot training. This can be done either through soft loans, or slightly lower pay and minimum term contracts with a buy out.

  3. “The second problem with pilot compensation is how much it is tied to seniority at a single carrier. Wouldn’t pilot lives be improved if they could switch carriers, if they wanted to, without losing all their seniority benefits?”

    The moment you mentioned “seniority, unions, and low pay for new entrants”, you pretty much answered your own question. The reason many larger carriers have struggled whereas niche players have thrived can also be attributed to circumventing this “phenomena”.

    1. The fact that seniority is tied to a single carrier is, IMO, the single most limiting factor in the union contracts today. I completely understand why they do it – it means the guys at the top always win. But that’s good only for the minority, not the majority, and that rarely seems like it should be what the unions are negotiating for. Alas, it is still what they do.

  4. @Joshua Sadly often unions’ top priority is preserving the union and therefore they pursue goals that aren’t always in the best interest of their members. Of course they find the way to rationalize this by coming up with justifications and dogma.

    But if some senior pilots from multiple carriers could get together to have open industry dialog about it, the pilots would do better for themselves to define a profession whose benefits and skills can be used across the industry. I cited movie directors, writers, and actors as an example. I think it can apply to pilots.

  5. “But if some senior pilots from multiple carriers could get together to have open industry dialog about it, the pilots would do better for themselves to define a profession whose benefits and skills can be used across the industry. I cited movie directors, writers, and actors as an example. I think it can apply to pilots.”

    Carl, senior pilots (and airline staff) already get together to have a dialog; they’re called “unions”. While not entirely open, unions have benefited entrenched members of the airline industry and provided generous benefits that have scaled with tenure, irregardless of the ability of younger pilots to perform the same tasks. That’s the entire issue with bigger American carriers who are hampered from re-investing into newer technology due to “high overhead”.

    Case and point: The reason American Airlines is “considering” bankruptcy isn’t so much because flying itself is expensive (which it is), or because of competition, but because entitlement spending has crippled their ability to innovate and they need to “reset” any “collective bargaining” agreements on the premise that they simply can’t pay for it while maintaining any semblance of a profitable model.

    The fact that higher fuel costs have pushed airlines over the edge and forced them to resort to baggage fees are an exacerbating factor and a symptom. The root cause is something that AA, United, and Delta need to confront if they are to compete with newer that don’t operate along the same lines.

  6. Even for the majority it is only good so long as their carrier remains financially healthy. I don’t think the most senior TWA pilots fared very well, and certainly the most senior Eastern and Braniff pilots didn’t. That’s why I think a definition of seniority within the profession as opposed to seniority with just a single carrier might be a better approach for pilots.

  7. “That’s why I think a definition of seniority within the profession as opposed to seniority with just a single carrier might be a better approach for pilots.”

    At which point young pilots would encounter the same barriers to entry across the entire industry as opposed to within the scope of single carrier.

  8. Joshua, I don’t think young pilots would be any worse off under industry-wide seniority. In particular, they wouldn’t have to make a career-long bet on which carrier will have the best financial performance and growth. Who knows how F9, VX or B6 will be doing 10 years from now.

  9. Carl, if the carriers that reward seniority are struggling to stay afloat even with government intervention, how would forcing smaller (and more sustainable) carriers such as VX or B6 who have rejected such proposals to join the fold improve the overall climate? Part of the formula that made the latter cases successful is the idea that seniority means nothing, performance and higher initial pay is everything.

    Do you believe younger pilots would be eager to join DL, UA, or US and toil until they are fortunate enough (or still employed long enough) to enjoy “seniority” or would they rather join a carrier that doesn’t discriminate based on tenure or age? If so, which union are you working for and how much are they paying you?

    1. “or would they rather join a carrier that doesn’t discriminate based on tenure or age?”

      Just curious, Joshua, which carrier would that be? Even the airlines which aren’t union pilots still have seniority and pay scales based on tenure (e.g. JetBlue: http://www.willflyforfood.com/airline-pilot-salary/151/JetBlue-Airways.html).

      The idea that it would be worse for anyone to have distributed seniority is definitely one I don’t understand. You’ve got guys basically getting paid crap today anyways. That’s not going to decrease.

      As for the TWA pilots, Carl, they got screwed by the integration rules but with the caveat that they were given priority at the STL base. With the current bankruptcy that STL base seems to be on the brink of being cut and, with it, the fence protecting the TWA pilots. A few hundred guys are about to lose many years of seniority: http://blog.wandr.me/2012/05/american-airlines-faces-lawsuit-from-pilots/.

  10. Joshua – do carriers like VX and B6 not use seniority? I was not aware of that. Are they also non-union?

  11. Carl: google either Richard Branson or David Barger (CEOs of VX and B6, respectively) along with the word “union” to get an idea of their stance towards the subject.

    Needless to say, seniority probably exists as a means of recognition for contributions at these companies, but not in the same sense as it does for the larger carriers, where regardless of contribution or performance, you are automatically “entitled” to pay hikes and increased pensions on a period basis.

  12. “Just curious, Joshua, which carrier would that be? Even the airlines which aren’t union pilots still have seniority and pay scales based on tenure (e.g. JetBlue: http://www.willflyforfood.com/airline-pilot-salary/151/JetBlue-Airways.html).”

    Seth, maybe by eyes are deceiving me, but my perception of the demographics of both pilots and stewards on flights on Jetblue and VX are of younger, more enthusiastic, more physically appealing, and more gracious employees than their counterparts working for the larger carriers; this is also the case of most Asian carriers (Singapore, Cathay, Thai) where unions are unheard of.

    Do more senior staff get paid more? Sure, but chances are that they are paid more (and still employed) by virtue not of seniority itself, but ability to do the job. That is the virtue of not negotiating with unions and having to engage in collective bargaining.

    Sounds rather Huxleyesque and discriminating, but that’s business. Who would you fly with? United or Thai Airways?

    1. I’m not entirely sure what your point is now, Joshua. I thought we were talking about pay scales relative to tenure and that’s something that both union and non-union airlines seem to follow pretty tightly.

      To the point of customer service, Southwest routinely gets very high rankings on that front and they’re a highly unionized shop. If there is a culture of bad service in an organization then that’s a problem, but I don’t believe that it is tied in lock-step to union or not.

  13. “I’m not entirely sure what your point is now, Joshua. I thought we were talking about pay scales relative to tenure and that’s something that both union and non-union airlines seem to follow pretty tightly.”

    Non-unionized airlines pay higher standard wages to entry-level employees than their unionized competitors. My point is that this difference in treatment explains why younger pilots and staff are more inclines to flock to non-unionized shops. The premise of your post is that initial pay at larger carriers along with their low sustainability prospects is discouraging to new entrants who would rather be paid more upfront than accept higher risk to compete with an entrenched establishment.

    I have also flown with Southwest, and they are “OK”. They own a subsidiary, AirTran, that I have also flown with recently…which was not a good experience…

  14. Seth: To elaborate, I flew on AirTran on one of their 717s; I was placed in the back of the plane, next to one of the engines (yes, I probably should have checked Seatguru, but my seat was unassigned and had to be obtained at the gate anyway). After takeoff, condensation from the top vent poured down on me and three other passengers…

    When I complained to the steward, he told me that this “happens on other flights, and there is nothing we can do”. When I told him I didn’t pay to get rained on and explicitly asked if there was another seat, he begrudgingly assigned me an exit seat that was available. That was my customer service experience…

    “High rankings”, like hotel ratings padded by affiliates of the hotels themselves, are rather dubious in helping one to gauge the true sense of how things are in the field. Ultimately, personal experience prevails, and I can tell you that my experience on SW or AT weren’t particularly phenomenal. Flights on VX and B6, on the other hand, have been pleasurable experiences.

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