The airline industry in the United States will see a worsening pilot shortage in the coming years as airmen retire and insufficient numbers of trainees are available to replace them, experts told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday.
Commercial pilots were encouraged by their employers to retire as worldwide lockdowns and public health mandates caused demand for air travel to plummet in the spring of 2020, worsening a previous trend toward a lack of available pilots. Elevated prices for airline tickets and a rapid return in travel demand are now prompting lawmakers to consider the problem.
Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that the airline sector expects another “tsunami of pilot retirements” in the coming years. More than 50% of current commercial pilots will be forced to retire within the next 15 years because of Federal Aviation Administration rules mandating that pilots exit their positions once they reach 65 years of age, while only 8% of pilots are below 30 years of age because of the high cost of flight education.
One analysis from consulting group Oliver Wyman predicts that there will exist a shortage of 60,000 pilots by the end of the decade. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in an earnings call earlier this year that the firm, which will hire 8,000 pilots this year alongside Delta, Southwest, and American, believes that “pilots are and will remain a significant constraint on capacity.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO), a general aviation pilot, said in his opening remarks that “pilot training has remained static over the years.” He added that another current rule from the Federal Aviation Administration requiring pilots to have completed 1,500 hours of flight experience before flying a commercial airliner should be reconsidered because “the number of flight hours you have are not a reflection of what kind of pilot you are,” as evidenced by a study from the agency.
“In our system, pilots with around 250 hours, typically very structured hours, come out of flight school and are left to bridge the gap to 1,500 hours,” Graves said. “Only a few of those hours have any kind of requirements associated with them, and even then, they can almost all be logged on sunny, clear days. I’m not convinced that taking kids out of flight school and telling them to tow banners, train students, or bore holes in the sky while racking up debt produces the best pilots.”
FlightSafety International CEO Brad Thress told lawmakers that simulators can provide pilots with experience while saving costs and offering a wider array of flight scenarios. “Allowing credit for simulator training for each rating on the ladder to becoming a professional pilot would make high-quality simulator experience an implicit part of the development of commercial pilots,” he contended. “Increasing the maximum amount of credit for simulator training to a larger portion of a pilot’s flight experience would have a significant positive impact on the safety of our industry.”
Pilot shortages and elevated fuel expenses have contributed to rising airfare in the United States: ticket prices have increased nearly 18% year-over-year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Proposals from Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) would increase the commercial pilot retirement age from 65 to 67 to ease staffing pressures, a move which Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg opposes. “The answer is not to keep the Baby Boomer generation in the cockpit indefinitely,” he said last summer. “The answer is to make sure we have as many and as good pilots ready to take their place, to have a stronger pipeline.”