Turbulence Ahead: The Coming Pilot Shortage and How It Came to Be

Steep training costs and underwhelming wages might be pushing the industry toward even more flight cancellations. 
Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

There are few professions that command respect like that of an airline pilot. Maybe it’s the faux military uniform. Maybe it’s the clipped, modulated voice that asks you to fasten your seat belt, promising to rise above momentary turbulence. Maybe it’s because passengers want to have faith in the human being responsible for their lives from takeoff to touchdown.

The people I was speaking to at Proteus Air Services—a civilian flight school in Santa Monica, California—were just like you'd expect: level-headed and focused. As part of another writing assignment, I was waiting to try my nerves in the cockpit, but the reporter in me couldn't help but ask my instructors how they fell into teaching, as opposed to serving as commercial pilots.

My coach for the day was young and former military. His partner, who was holding down the fort back at the office, was a few years older and civilian-trained. The tales of how they both came to this small school at Santa Monica's tiny airport were the same: They loved flying, but they couldn’t make a living wage as airline pilots.

That had to be impossible. These two professional pilots couldn’t make more money flying passenger airliners than they were giving lessons in Cessnas?

My instructor was reluctant to go into detail in front of a reporter for fear that the airlines would get wind of his comments. “I’m not afraid that I’ll never be able to get a job as a pilot, because I’m not looking for one. I just got my real estate license,” he said. “I have friends who are still struggling to get into the business. I wouldn’t want something I say to hurt them.”

He went on: “The bottom line is, to work as a commercial pilot, I’d have to start out with a regional carrier for short hops. I’d end up making maybe $19 or $20 an hour. And I would only be paid for the time I spent in the seat with the cabin door closed. There’s a good chance the flight attendant would be making more money than me.”

I peppered him with questions, trying to figure out if he was just bitter because he was struggling to find a job. But I couldn’t shake him from that line. He insisted that aspiring pilots spend years, not to mention thousands of dollars, training for entry-level jobs with regional carriers, which offer hourly pay and minimal benefits. How could airline pilots face compensation levels that are merely in the neighborhood of a living wage?

* * *

The nosedive in recent years of pilot salaries resulted from a mix of common economic woes. Neil Roghair, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association, said that these issues have been slowly mounting for a couple decades.

“When you factor in airline deregulation with the reduction in the number of carriers due to mergers, pilots face fewer opportunities as they enter the industry,” Roghair said. “Since there are still men and women out there who love to fly and want to pursue that as a career, you saw a labor surplus.”

After the Airline Deregulation Act passed in 1978, the government no longer controlled the industry's fares, scheduling, or staffing. While the FAA remained in charge of flight safety, the many airlines in the consumer market were now in charge of whom they hired and how much they paid them.

“The industry expanded quickly throughout the 1980s,” Roghair explained. “That growth slowed some in the 1990s, but 9/11 was obviously devastating to the airline industry. We faced a decade of bankruptcies and mergers throughout the industry. We went from a booming labor market to a shrinking employment pool relatively quickly.”

Todd Simoneau is one pilot who rode out many of those changes. He trained at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University before going on to serve as a pilot with seven different airlines: Northeast Express, Precision Airlines, Atlantic, TWA, North American, American Eagle and American Airlines—most of which have been absorbed into a larger airline or no longer exist.

“I was furloughed by AA in 2003 and went to work for North American Airlines, based at JFK,” Simoneau said. “After a year there I was given the opportunity to fly at American Eagle. Six years later, I was finally recalled to AA. I am now very junior again at AA, after being hired at a major airline 17 years ago.”

Roghair said all pilots struggle at the beginning of their careers. Current FAA regulations require 1,500 hours of in-air training before a pilot can work for an airline. “It also costs pilots thousands of dollars to gain the education they need,” Roghair added. “New pilots can come into the industry in significant debt. When you consider the wages they’ll make if they enter the industry, more would-be pilots are simply choosing another path.”

“Unless they come from a wealthy family, the problem every new pilot has is debt,” Simoneau said. “The First Officers I flew with at American Eagle came there with over $200,000 in debt for a job that pays $22,914 per year, to start. It took me about 10 years to pay it back. If anything, the situation for new pilots is much worse.”

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John Scott Lewinski is a writer who covers travel, technology, and the automotive industry.

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