Pilot Supply: Maintaining a High Standard Amid High Demand

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. airlines were on the brink of economic disaster. Passenger traffic had dropped by 96 percent, and carriers were facing bankruptcies and the inability to keep supply chains moving. With this critical piece of U.S. transportation infrastructure at risk, the federal government and American taxpayers intervened to help save the aviation industry. Unlike any other industry, airlines received not one, not two, but three financial lifelines totaling $63 billion.

With strong leadership from labor, Congress passed the payroll support program and kept thousands of pilots and other aviation workers on the job and off unemployment. This financial assistance kept the U.S. economy alive, global supply chains open, and critical medical personnel and equipment moving to combat the pandemic—all with the goal that when the recovery began, the aviation industry would be well positioned to rebound and fuel further economic growth for other commercial and industrial sectors.

However, as the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us and despite the $63 billion given to airlines to maintain employees and plan for the inevitable return of travel, some airlines have not seized the opportunity to be ready to return to the skies. Not wasting the chance to push a profit-first agenda, some continue to claim that there’s a lack of available pilots.

The truth, however, is that some airlines have planned for the recovery better than others. While some anticipated what would be needed—and when—to meet consumer demand, others failed to develop their capacity to train the large number of available pilots to meet current demand. And rather than admit this operational failure, they’re using diversions such as claiming a lack of available pilots and continue to develop alternative arguments about what should be done to meet this false narrative of a staffing shortage.

According to FAA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there are more than enough qualified pilots to meet demand—with currently approximately 1.5 certificated pilots for every available job. So although there isn’t a shortage of airline pilots, there is a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be truthful about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay.

Airlines are cutting service to dozens of cities across the country and laying the groundwork to weaken the most important set of aviation safety regulations of the past decade enacted at the direction of Congress—the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which was signed into law in July 2010. The resulting regulations, implemented in August 2013 and sometimes referred to as the “1,500-hour rule,” overhauled pilot qualification regulations and implemented flight experience and training standards for Part 121 first officers flying passengers and cargo.

ALPA was a strong advocate for the law and resulting regulations, which, according to NTSB data, has seen Part 121 passenger airline fatalities decrease by 99.8 percent since its enactment.

But rather than applaud the unparalleled safety achievements the robust first officer qualifications rules have ushered in, some airlines claim, among other things, that the qualification and pilot training requirements mandated by Congress discourage potential airline pilots and are the cause for service cuts to rural communities. They instead use the fictitious claim that there’s a lack of available pilots in an attempt to weaken pilot training and safety standards and distract from their profit-first business decisions instead of focusing on necessary changes to fundamental issues associated with these profit-driven business models.

ALPA remains committed to ensuring a robust pipeline of diverse, highly trained, and qualified pilots and is addressing current barriers to becoming an airline pilot. Managing the high costs of becoming an aviator and tapping into underrepresented communities are just two of the challenges that have been identified that prevent some individuals from entering the profession.

Data shows that airlines make operational decisions based on the profitability of each route. Past practice has proven that the airline industry is able to attract qualified candidates and develop a robust pipeline of future aviators if pilots are paid commensurate with their training and experience.

The Flightpath Ahead

However, this doesn’t mean that action isn’t required—as the piloting profession faces competition from other career fields. Action is needed in several critical areas to allow the United States to break down barriers to recruit future pilots and foster a more diverse and inclusive aviation workforce that reflects the communities and customers the industry serves while maintaining the highest safety standards in the world.

In a recent letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, offered the Association’s experience and expertise to ensure that the piloting profession is welcoming and accessible to all, particularly those who’ve traditionally been underrepresented.

ALPA is urging that federal funding support for the education required to become an airline pilot be aligned with that of other highly skilled professions by

  • authorizing and increasing federal educational aid programs such as the Pell Grant Program to provide financial assistance to students pursuing two- and four-year degrees at postsecondary higher education institutions to cover the costs of aviation flight training.
  • creating a student loan cancellation program that allows airline pilots to work for a specific period in exchange for loan forgiveness for airlines that serve the public need, including those that provide humanitarian relief through organizations such as Air Serv International or Doctors Without Borders and advance public health through the World Health Organization.
  • reviewing government guidelines to increase the number and amounts of subsidized loans available to students for flight training and ensure that students who receive unsubsidized loans don’t accrue interest on the loans while in school.

In addition, ALPA recommends that the federal government make aviation education more accessible to minorities and underrepresented groups by

  • providing federal grants to minority-serving institutions that want to start aviation professional flight degree programs or those that already offer two- and four-year degrees that include flight training and want to expand their programs.
  • offering federal support to other colleges and universities that serve underrepresented communities to begin aviation degree programs that include flight training.

“As we work to expand and diversify our industry’s highly skilled, trained, and experienced pilot workforce, ALPA is also committed to furthering the dignity of work by insisting on an inclusive workplace for aviation employees irrespective of race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or other diversity traits,” DePete noted. “Some may argue that we should lower the safety bar to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the piloting profession, but we reject this false choice. ALPA believes we can—and must—do more as a nation to open the doors of opportunity for those currently underrepresented in the piloting profession and maintain the highest safety standards in the world.”

Rather than hide behind the excuse of a fictitious pilot shortage in order to pursue profits, ALPA has chosen leadership and charted a course that will supply highly trained and experienced pilots to maintain the U.S. air transport system as the safest mode of transportation in the world. By increasing access to the airline piloting profession, ALPA is ensuring the future for all professional pilots—and those who dream of becoming pilots.

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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