A Short History of Pilot Shortages

Air Line Pilot, February 2001, p. 18
By George E. Hopkins

Not since the 1960s have so many "Help Wanted" ads run in aviation magazines. Northwest Airlink searches for pilots in USA Today, of all places. Blind letters (obviously culled from the FAA mailing list) seek any IFR-rated 1,200-hour pilot willing to fly Part 121 single-engine freight—even old ex-Navy pilot professors! Mighty United cancels flights over alleged "crew shortages." The Chicago Tribune features aspiring student pilots with the catchy title: "Who Wants to be a Millionaire Pilot?"

Are we living in a parallel universe?

Barely a decade ago, pilot unemployment clouded ALPA’s future. So many qualified pilots were either furloughed, locked out, or flat unemployed, that those evil twins of deregulation skulduggery, Frank Lorenzo and Dick Ferris, tried to fly through strikes at Eastern and United using "fleet qualified" scabs hired "off the street."

So where have the hordes of jobless pilots gone? Is the shortage real? More to the point, what’s in the future? Perhaps a brief history of pilot shortages has some answers—or at least, warnings.

The jurassic pilot shortage (1929–1931)

Historically, a persistent oversupply of pilots has characterized aviation. Back when wings were wooden, the "Old Guys" who founded ALPA would have laughed at the idea of a pilot shortage. During World War I, the military trained thousands of pilots for whom few post-war jobs were available. But by April 1927, Aviation magazine sounded an alarm: "The war-trained flyer who has not flown since the Armistice is no longer fit to fly and is disappearing, just as are war-surplus stocks of airplanes."

But the Old Guys knew that "fit to fly" depended upon who defined "fit." In the 1920s, something called the Federation Aeronautique Internationale certified pilots, but a logbook signed by Orville or Wilbur Wright would also do. Much like the early practice of law or medicine, a pilot was pretty much somebody who said he was—until the government stepped in.

In 1927, the Department of Commerce began issuing licenses to pilots employed by the new airlines that replaced the Post Office Air Mail Service. Capt. Walter Bullock of Northwest ("Mr. C" among the "Key Men" who organized ALPA) said in a 1967 interview: "There wasn’t much to it. A government inspector just came around licensing pilots, and gave you a little check ride."

Because of these lax standards, the first ALPA By-Laws stated simply that any pilot actually working for an airline qualified for membership. But the Old Guys worried constantly about licensing, because it determined who could fly an airliner.

One of ALPA’s first "official" actions was a failed attempt by Dave Behncke to control licensing. In 1929, when Behncke was serving as an officer in the National Air Pilots Association, which included crop dusters and other miscellaneous airmen, the Commerce Department sent out a questionnaire on licensing. A clear division of opinion between airline pilots and others emerged.

This Commerce Department questionnaire revealed that most airline pilots favored licensing by aircraft "type," while nonairline pilots wanted a simple "transport" rating covering any airplane. About 3,500 pilots held Commerce Department "transport" licenses at the time. Fewer than 350 pilots were actually working for the fledgling airlines.

So once ALPA emerged from the NAPA in 1931, Behncke supported stricter licensing standards—simply as job protection for working airline pilots.

Behncke succeeded because a pilot shortage, of sorts, existed. In 1929, the New York Times quoted Thomas G. Lanphier, CEO of Transcontinental Air Transport (the celebrated "train-plane" transcontinental operation), complaining about a shortage of pilots "qualified to fly heavy tri-motors." About the same time, Aviation said only 150 pilots in the country were qualified to fly "big Fords." Commerce Department licensing restrictions caused this "shortage."

Delegates to the 1932 ALPA Convention (the first national meeting following the organizational session, which affiliated with the AFL-CIO) debated licensing. Behncke knew pilots couldn’t control their own licensing (like doctors and lawyers), so he argued for political action to influence it. Behncke cultivated politicians who had power over licensing, trying to make it difficult for management to replace veteran pilots. He even lobbied for an Air Line Pilot Academy, modeled on the Merchant Marine Academy—an idea that went nowhere.

This search for a political "fix" caused Behncke to invite Air Mail Superintendent Earl Wadsworth to address ALPA delegates in 1932. This obvious "ego stroking" of a powerful official seemed to work. "We understand your purposes," Wadsworth said of Behncke’s desire to protect pilots from competition through strict licensing. "Dave Behncke has been a good friend of ours."

But ALPA’s early politicking was less important than a purely technological (and temporary) aspect of line flying. Until low frequency "aural" radio ranges standardized IFR navigation, "scheduled" operations depended upon pilots who were expert at getting a lumbering tri-motor through in bad weather. These pilots flew visually in awful weather, often measured in the number of telephone poles an observer could count. Doing that in a single-engine mailplane was one thing, but quite another in the multiengine aircraft the Hoover Administration had forced the operators to buy as a condition of holding a mail contract in 1930. Only a few pilots had the skill to complete scheduled flights in heavy weather using "hybrid" instrument techniques (the "big Fords" had gyro horizons that could be used enroute, even before ATC existed). Pilots often designed their own nonstandard IFR approaches, combining dead reckoning, commercial radio stations, and calculated risk. Such pilots could not easily be replaced.

So, two factors (multiengine licensing and hybrid IFR/VFR skills) created the pilot shortage that was critical to ALPA’s early survival. The operators would have fired the unionizing Old Guys immediately, otherwise. By the mid-1930s, the new ATC system had made these skills technologically obsolete, and management promptly tried to replace the Old Guys with younger IFR-trained pilots, who didn’t need hybrid flying skills. Fortunately, ALPA was politically strong enough by then to prevent mass firings. [Readers interested in a more detailed explanation are invited to read "The Livermore Affair," Flying the Line, Vol. I.]

Hitler’s pilot shortage (1942–1945)

Ironically, the surplus of military-trained pilots who made the job market so tight in the 1930s would figure in the next pilot shortage. Military pilot training (the industry’s traditional source of new hires) became steadily more sophisticated by the mid-1930s, particularly after the Army’s ill-fated attempt to fly the mail in 1934. Roosevelt canceled the mail contracts, alleging that the Hoover Administration had fraudulently granted them. Several Army pilots died owing to poor IFR skills, leading the military to upgrade training. Because many of these pilots served only short posttraining tours of active duty owing to the low military budgets of the 1930s, plenty of military-trained IFR-capable pilots were available.

But most of these pilots, including the lucky few who found airline jobs, remained obligated to the military. With the enormous defense buildup that followed the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, many airline pilots who held reserve commissions were recalled to active duty. In 1940, Congress passed the "$100,000 Airplane Bill," the largest single appropriation in American history until then. The United States obviously didn’t have enough pilots to fly all those airplanes. After Pearl Harbor, so many reserve officers were recalled to active military service that a sudden shortage of airline pilots emerged.

The Civilian Pilot Training Program, although ambitious, could not remedy this shortage overnight. Consequently, several airlines began recruiting low-time pilots and creating their own training programs. Perhaps the most famous was United’s training school at Tracey Field, Calif. Many of these "Tracey Aces" would quickly find themselves in the left seat of a DC-3, after barely a year of line flying experience. The wartime pilot shortage was also instrumental in securing the first collective bargaining contracts in ALPA’s history, beginning with American in 1939.

As at the end of World War I, an enormous glut of demobilized pilots emerged after World War II. Many thousands of them were fully qualified to fly the standard airliner of the day, the DC-3. They were strike-breakers in waiting. By 1947, something called the Military Pilots Association (MPA) made explicit offers to cross picket lines. The MPA, coupled with the pilot glut, encouraged several airlines to test ALPA’s mettle, notably TWA in 1946 and National Airlines in 1948. The MPA supplied many scabs in the National strike. Only the political influence of organized labor saved pilot unionization and ALPA from this assault. [Readers seeking more information should read Flying the Line, Vol. I, "The National Airlines Strike of 1948"; or for a more scholarly treatment, my chapter on Ted Baker in Airline Executives and Federal Regulation (Ohio State Univ. Press, W. D. Lewis, ed., 2000).]

This "pig going through a python" pilot glut would inaugurate the longest and tightest job market in the industry’s history, lasting 20 years. The huge post-World War II military pilot glut was increased by pilot training during the Korean War. In the Eisenhower era, three sharp recessions depressed airline hiring even more. "When the economy catches cold," economists joke, "the airlines catch pneumonia."

Perhaps the single most restrictive rule governing pilot employment emerged from the prolonged 1950s slump—the "age 60" rule. Many younger pilots supported the rule, not because any substantial evidence showed that older pilots were unsafe, but simply to open up stagnant promotion lists.

The jet boom (1965–1968)

People like Juan Trippe of Pan Am and Howard Hughes of TWA had no intention of inaugurating a pilot shortage when they began buying jets in the late 1950s. But these whisper-quiet magic carpets caught on quickly with a newly affluent flying public, beginning an era of glamorous travel, with Sinatra crooning "Come Fly With Me" in the background. The airlines hired pilots as fast as they ordered jets. United famously hired zero-time college graduates and paid for their training—from scratch!

Several other factors contributed to the pilot shortage that coincided with the coming of jets. World War II pilots who might have considered an airline job were now too old and established in nonflying careers. The military had cut back training programs after the Korean War, producing only enough pilots to meet attrition, which wasn’t heavy until Vietnam heated up in 1965. For those entering pilot training, the military increased the obligated-service requirement substantially, which encouraged pilots to remain in the service for a career. In the 1950s, low draft calls had reduced the number of nonpilot veterans who qualified for government-subsidized flight training, and in any case, the "GI Bill" had been phased out for those entering military service after 1955. [The "Cold War GI Bill" would replace it in 1967.] Many other career opportunities also beckoned to ex-military pilots during the "swinging sixties." Some even became professors!

The good times ended abruptly in 1969. Military training programs, ramped up during Vietnam, more than met shrinking airline job openings. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 started a worldwide recession, which predictably depressed the airline industry. So bad did things become that conservative economists at the University of Chicago began arguing for airline "deregulation." Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose cited high pilot salaries as a major reason for the airline industry’s decline. [Friedman quoted my The Airline Pilots (Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), complaining that it "proved" pilots were overpaid because of ALPA!]

The millennium pilot shortage (1997–??)

The FAA can, of course, end any pilot shortage with the stroke of a pen. It could determine that technology makes 100-hour pilots as safe as 5,000-hour pilots. As any professor knows, when grading students, if all else fails, lower the standards!

Consider this: United doubled its pilot force between the 1985 strike and 2000. This pattern repeated throughout the industry, with a few exceptions.

The post-1997 hiring frenzy had several components, the surging post-1993 economy being most important. The wave of retiring Jet Boom hires began to crest (thanks to the "age 60" rule), just when deregulation spurred the growth of "new entrant" and commuter airlines. Amazing job growth throughout the economy siphoned off people who might otherwise have chosen flying careers. Who wanted to work for Frank Lorenzo when dot.com careers beckoned? Military downsizing, which began in the

late 1980s and accelerated after the Gulf War, repeated the post-Korean War pattern of restricted pilot production. The military further increased obligated-service requirements for flight training, while private civilian flight training became almost prohibitively expensive. Industry turmoil in the 1980s, wage "give backs," and nasty intramural merger fights among pilot groups disillusioned many veteran pilots, who retired early.

In the late 1990s, the concept of an ALPA-supported training academy reemerged, was studied by governing body representatives, and found to be not financially feasible.

The current pilot shortage has been with us nearly as long as the fabled jet boom of the 1960s. ALPA’s renewed vitality rests on the bargaining advantage of this pilot shortage. Recent negotiations have inverted the troubled past, as fights to gain "industry standard" contracts have replaced the rear-guard actions that ALPA so recently fought against concessionary contracts. Not even Frank Lorenzo would try to fly through a strike today!

So with apologies to Charles Dickens, these do indeed seem to be "the best of times." But no pilot shortage lasts forever, and when it comes to the overriding question of job quality, not every pilot flying the line fares well. Every pilot knows of fully qualified pilots who cannot get even an interview with (let alone hired by) a major airline. While some pilots get jobs, not all pilots get "dream" jobs. It has always been that way.

Thus ALPA confronts an old problem. The Old Guys knew about it. They ardently believed that wages and working conditions should be roughly the same for all pilots, regardless of the airline they worked for. How does ALPA make that old dream a reality? Modern pilots live with working conditions whose disparities between those at a regional airline and those at a "major" airline dwarf the differences between yesteryear’s "trunk" and "feeder" pilots. Yet modern pilots are no less integrally a part of "the system" than were pilots in the old regulated system. ALPA must once again confront this old challenge, presented in a different form, of making every pilot’s wage a "living" one.

An old axiom of history holds that the past is prologue.

Or put more plainly—what goes around, comes around.

The Old Guys would have understood.

George E. Hopkins, a history professor, former naval aviator, and regular contributor to Air Line Pilot, wrote Flying the Line, Vols. I and II.