DALLAS — There seems to be a looming pilot shortage crisis threatening commercial airlines post-pandemic. 2022 was filled with pilots’ strikes demanding pay rises and retirements. 2023 has seen U.S. airports riddled with aircraft near misses, which some see as the result of having fewer experienced pilots, longer hours, and more stressful working conditions.
This begs the question: how do we get younger generations excited about working in commercial aviation?
The largest airline pilot union in the world representing more than 66,000 pilots at 40 U.S. and Canadian airlines, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) says that “although we don’t have a pilot shortage, we do have a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be upfront about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay.”
Our initial plan was to conduct an interview with ALPA. The association instead sent us the transcript of its president and Boeing 767 Captain, Jason Ambrosi’s oral testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation Hearing on “Strengthening the Aviation Workforce” was held on March 16, 2023, said the answers to our questions were there.
We’ll summarize the main points of Capt. Ambrosi’s testimony as it pertains to the pilot shortage claims.
The Airline Pilot Shortage
The association asserts that some airlines are trying to weaken training and safety standards, deflect attention from their profit-first business decisions to cut service, and hire inexperienced aviators for less money by using the “fictitious” argument that there aren’t enough pilots to go around.
Instead of focusing on changes to the fundamental issues connected with these profit-driven business models, the association argues that some airlines are using the pilot shortage claim in order to weaken training and safety standards.
Two years ago, the commercial aviation industry was on the verge of an economic catastrophe and the pandemic was believed to be the genesis of the commercial airline pilot shortage.
However, data shows that airlines in the US received financial lifelines totaling US$63m, with American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), United Airlines (UA), and Southwest Airlines (WN) receiving a fair share of the pandemic subsidies.
This kept pilots, among other aviation workers, from unemployment and set the aviation industry in readiness for recovery. Further, according to FAA data, the US is producing more pilots than it did pre-pandemic era.
ALPA Addresses the US Senate
In the U.S. Senate Committee hearing testimony, Capt. Ambrosi told the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation that he was on the front lines of the aviation industry during the pandemic and can attest to the fact that choices made during COVID to downgrade pilots to smaller equipment, park aircraft, furlough, and put pilots on inactive status resulted in a large training backlog.
Capt. Ambrosi continued, “When demand—and subsequently growth—returned more quickly than some airlines anticipated, most of these pilots had to be retrained. This necessary process is time-intensive and expensive. It also relies on a training footprint that includes personnel and simulator devices and was not designed for a global pandemic of this magnitude.”
“With the recovery and thanks to this Committee’s actions during the pandemic, airlines are hiring pilots as companies expand market share and networks. These actions have further complicated the current labor market by creating attrition, with pilots moving between airlines,” he said.
He continued by saying that pilots are also eschewing less desirable airlines in favor of those that offer well-paying jobs and higher quality of life. “But this too will resolve itself with time, both because regional pilot contracts are improving and because mainline hiring will stabilize,” he affirmed.
It is worth adding here that ALPA is calling on Congress to support the current first officer qualification standards and to oppose any attempts to diminish commercial airline safety regulations.
The association claims that current air safety regulations would be weakened by some congressional proposals, which would also prioritize airline profits over aviation safety. ALPA is committed to thwarting any attempts to roll back essential aviation safety regulations and vehemently opposes any attempts to weaken safety standards.
ALPA Advice for Bringing in New Pilots
So again, how can we inspire the next generation to pursue careers in commercial aviation? ALPA suggests funding several pilot incentives, such as assisting students with high flight training costs, subsidized loans for flight training in partnership with two- and four-year aviation colleges and universities, and excluding students from paying interest on loans while they are enrolled in school, in order to sustain a robust pilot pipeline.
Additionally, they advocate growing the number of students who graduate from accredited two- or four-year aviation programs which acquire the license required to work as an airline pilot, creating awareness of aviation jobs available among today’s competitive workforce, and providing them with the support and mentorship they need to confidently enter the field.
Another suggested way is attracting more workforce diversity, creating role models so that women and people of color can view themselves as future airline pilots, and Increasing Title IV funding for hiring professional pilots with degrees from institutions that serve underrepresented groups, such as historically black colleges and universities and giving sizeable grants to institutions that serve minorities to launch aviation programs that help these groups and expose them to aviation experiences.
Some other idea is to permanently establish the Women in Aviation Advisory Board as a body dedicated to increasing and assisting women in order to inspire them to pursue careers in aviation.
For instance, women currently make up over 50% of the nation’s workforce, but they are notably underrepresented in the aviation sector, accounting for only 2% of airline mechanics, 4% of flight engineers, 5% of repair personnel, 26% of air traffic controllers, 18% of flight dispatchers, and 6% of airline pilots.
On a final note, Ambrosi is quoted in the March 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot in regards to the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 and pilot training, saying that “It’s no accident that the airline passenger fatality rate has dropped by 99.8 percent since the law was passed in 2010.”
“This extraordinary record demonstrates that the current system is working in the way it was intended. The United States is creating thousands of new pilots each year who have the experience and training they need to ensure this nation maintains its place as the global safety leader.”
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