WASHINGTON (CNN) – The national security of the United States relies on a healthy airline industry. That requires modern reliable airplanes, and highly skilled pilots to operate them. However, the U.S. has a shortage of those pilots, particularly at the regional airline levels.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were about 827,000 pilots in America in 1987. However, in the past three decades, that number has decreased by 30 percent.
Meanwhile, during this same period, there has been a tremendous increase in the demand for air travel. The International Air Transport Association predicts that, over the next 20 years, air travel will double.
This is a classic case of low supply and high demand. This mismatch has created a perfect storm that could wreak havoc on the U.S. airline industry over the next decade. The somber news is this shortage is going to get much worse.
Back in the 1970s, when most of today’s airline pilots were growing up, piloting for an airline was considered a prestigious career. The job offered not only high salaries and nice schedules, with many days off, but also a respected position within society.
What’s more, during this time, the military had a steady and consistent demand for pilots. A young aspiring aviator could go into the military to receive all of his or her flight training. Once these pilots had fulfilled their military commitment, they were almost guaranteed a good job flying for a major airline.
Today, this is no longer the case. The career of the airline pilot has lost its luster. This is due, in part, to deregulation. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act kicked off the era of the low-cost carrier. As a result, some airlines such as Pan-Am went out of business. Then, the 9/11 attacks left the airlines in poor financial condition.
Five of the six major legacy airlines in the United States declared bankruptcy: American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways and Delta Air Lines.
Meanwhile, the number of pilots supplied by the military has dwindled. Much of this is due to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. In the 1980s, roughly two-thirds of airline pilots were ex-military. Recently, that percentage has dropped to less than one-third. The Navy predicts a 10 percent pilot shortage in 2020, while the Air Force predicts its own 1,000-pilot shortage by 2022.
This means that many young aspiring aviators now have to pay for their own flight training. That can be very costly, easily exceeding $100,000, especially in light of an uncertain future. Many are simply unwilling to take that risk. This effect was aggravated by the great recession.
Also, in 2009, Congress changed the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65. A 2016 report by Boeing showed that 42 percent of the pilots currently flying for the major airlines in the United States will reach their mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next 10 years.
The other side of the shortage problem is that demand for well-trained pilots is actually increasing. The greatest demand is in Asia and the Pacific regions. Manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are delivering more and more airplanes and plan to continue to do so over the next 20 years.
Congress also changed the duty time rules in 2010 to mitigate pilot fatigue issues. This change meant that airlines had to increase their pilot staffing by 5 percent to 8 percent in order to cover the same schedule. In other words, they need to hire even more qualified pilots.
The major U.S. airlines are not yet directly experiencing the pilot shortage. But smaller regional airlines are experiencing this firsthand. Their schedules have been reduced and some have been forced into bankruptcy as a result of inadequate staffing.
The industry has taken a few steps to address this problem. Regional airlines now offer much higher pay and even signing bonuses. There’s even talk of extending the retirement age again to 67.
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