Washington — The demand for thousands of new commercial pilots is forcing airlines to be less choosy and causing even some of the largest air carriers to have less experienced cockpit crews, aviation experts say. Investigators were looking closely yesterday into whether pilot inexperience was a factor in Sunday's crash of a Continental Airlines DC-9 in Denver in which 28 people were killed, including the two pilots.
Both of the pilots had only recently begun flying that type of plane.
The copilot, who Continental officials said Wednesday night was at the controls, had only 36 hours of flying time in a DC-9. The captain, although an 18-year veteran of the airline, had less than 200 hours in the type of jet that crashed.
Continental spokesman Bruce Hicks maintained that the experience level of the two pilots - Capt. Frank Zvonek, who previously had flown Boeing 727s, and copilot Lee Bruecher - was not unusual. ``That is the norm in the industry,'' Mr. Hicks maintained.
But aviation experts said in interviews that the experience level of cockpit crews varies among airlines, with those that have had the most rapid growth likely to find themselves promoting pilots more quickly.
``When movement [up the seniority scale] is slow, it's rare to get two new guys [together in the cockpit], but in an airline expanding rapidly then it's not unusual,'' said David C. Koch, a pilot at United Airlines and cofounder of Aerospace Flight Training Academy, an aviation career counseling firm.
Koch said finding less experienced pilots in the cockpit will likely become more common ``if we don't do something to get more pilots now and get them seasoned.''
This year about 7,000 pilots will be hired to fly jet aircraft for the country's commercial airlines and several thousand more to fly turboprop aircraft for the commuters, according to the Future Aviation Professionals of America (FAPA). Nearly 20,000 pilots were hired during the two previous years.
``The high demand shows no sign of abating anytime soon,'' says Henry Duffy, president of the 40,000-member Air Line Pilots Association. He suggests the industry may face a critical pilot shortage in the years ahead because thousands of pilots are nearing retirement.
In the past, the major airlines have relied on the military to provide for better than 8 out of every 10 pilots hired. Last year just under half the pilots hired came from the military, though the number is expected to increase somewhat this year because airlines for the first time have routinely begun hiring military retirees. These pilots, often in their late 30s or early 40s, were once thought to be too old.
With airlines unable to get enough military pilots, they are aggressively raiding the commuter airlines, causing severe shortages among those carriers.
``Some small commuter airlines have told us that they are experiencing close to 100 percent pilot turnover annually,'' says Edith Page, who has studied pilot shortages for Congress's Office of Technology Assessment. ``Their trained pilots are hired away by a larger airline almost the minute they acquire the necessary hours.''
Not long ago, major air carriers required at least 3,400 hours of flying time for new hires. The pilots union says the average is now 3,000 hours, and the FAPA estimates that about 13 percent of the pilots hired by the major carriers last year had less than 2,000 hours.