Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Wed April 27 2016

Could The Cost of Learning to Fly Be Causing A Worldwide Pilot Shortage?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | April 27, 2016

Could The Cost of Learning to Fly Be Causing A Worldwide Pilot Shortage?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Pilot shortages are becoming an issue for some airlines. Rules changes that require co-pilots to have more flight experience in the United States have caused major problems for smaller regional carriers. Some have had to ground flights because there aren’t enough qualified people for their cockpits. When Republic Airways declared bankruptcy recently, its CEO blamed the situation, in part, on a nationwide pilot shortage. 

In East Asia, meanwhile, the huge growth in demand for air travel has also led to a shortage in qualified fliers. Airlines in China have actually had to look abroad, with some offering outrageous salaries and perks to lure pilots from countries like South Korea. 

Good job prospects, but major roadblocks

It seems like becoming a pilot is a good career choice, not just because it is a “dream job” for many, but because it looks like qualified pilots will be in very high demand in the future. They will enjoy job security and command high salaries. 

There is one thing standing in the way of would-be pilots: the high cost of education and the even higher cost of fulfilling experience requirements. 

Strict experience requirements

It was not always this way. Until a few years ago, novice pilots could learn on the job. They would graduate from flights school and get a job with one of the smaller regional airlines as a co-pilot after having logged as little as 250 hours of flight time.

READ MORE: Pilot Shortage is Really a Shortage of Pilots

The low entry requirements changed after a series of incidents involving pilot error on regional airlines. The last straw came in 2009, when a pilot and co-pilot's mistakes were blamed for a crash in Buffalo, New York. All 49 people on board were killed when a Continental Airlines-affiliated Colgan Air turboprop stalled and crashed near the Buffalo airport. 

Soon after this crash, the FAA changed the rules. Co-pilots are now required to have 1,500 hours of flight time before they can fly commercially. Additionally, fliers must log at least 1,000 hours in the co-pilot's chair before they are eligible to be promoted to pilot. 

Becoming more and more expensive to learn to fly

With flight time costing more than $100 per hour, getting the requisite experience is very expensive. Considering that the first jobs that commercial pilots have are usually with regional airlines that pay far less than legacy carriers, it could take years before the cost of getting a commercial pilot’s license is recovered. 

The other problem: the military is using fewer pilots as it relies more and more on drones for combat operations. This means that not only is it becoming more expensive for people to pursue a pilot license privately, but the previously-steady stream of military-trained fliers ready to enter the commercial aviation job market is also drying up.

What is the solution?

Regional carriers have asked the FAA to make some sort of allowance that will let them avoid the 1,500 hour threshold for co-pilot experience. The 1,500 rule will be up for renewal this fall, and some airlines are asking for a lower level of experience, saying that the 1,500-hour minimum is too high. 

However, because of safety concerns, a return to a 250-hour minimum for co-pilots is unlikely. Airlines could start their own training programs, teaching novice fliers in-house and giving them the requisite experience in exchange for a commitment to work for a certain period of time. 

In-house training

JetBlue launched such a program to much fanfare recently. The airline accepted 24 people with no flying experience and promised to train them and give them positions in JetBlue cockpits once they become qualified. The program will last for four years. There is one major catch for the wanna-be fliers: the cost of this education is $125,000. Yes, they will have a guaranteed job when they graduate, but that is still a steep price to pay. 

READ MORE: JetBlue Looking to Train Pilots with No Experience

This kind of in-house training could be a way for novices to learn to fly without having to shoulder too much financial risk. If their education is successful, they will be able to earn the cost of tuition back while flying for a major airline (instead of having to work their way up through the regional ranks while making $20,000-$30,000 per year).

Also, some regional carriers have started to offer pilots-in-training jobs to help them pay for the cost of their education. The airlines then guarantee a spot in the cockpit when all the flight requirements have been met.  

It is clear that something will have to change or there will simply not be enough qualified pilots to go around. At the same time, lowering experience requirements is not a very attractive option either.   


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