The aviation industry is on the rebound financially, but a looming pilot shortage could create some unexpected turbulence.
For a view of what this could mean for passengers, one need only look to Northwest Airlines.
Since last Friday, the Minneapolis-based carrier has canceled hundreds of flights because it hasn't had enough pilots in reserve to fly all of the planes it had scheduled and handle all of the overtime created by summer weather delays.
The result: Thousands of passengers like Maria Montoya, who spent seven hours trying to get from Detroit to New York, were delayed, rerouted, and frustrated.
Aviation experts say that Northwest's cancellations are unique, a product of the carrier's overzealous cost-cutting to lift itself out of bankruptcy, which it did this past May. But as the industry continues to recover, they warn, demand for new pilots could soon outstrip the supply. And unless airlines start aggressively recruiting and training new pilots now, such problems could affect the entire industry. Key reasons for the potential shortfall: Flying has lost much of its glamour, and not enough young people want to become pilots. Smaller and regional carriers are already having trouble hiring new pilots and have lowered their standards, requiring fewer hours of flying experience.
"It's really a pretty big problem, and we're just awakening to it," says Kit Darby, president of AIR Inc., a job resource center for pilots in Atlanta. "It takes time to create really experienced pilots. We're going to have a shortage for a while."
Since 2002, four major airlines have gone bankrupt and thousands of pilots have been furloughed. Many of those who remained saw their wages cut by as much as 40 and 50 percent. Many also lost their pensions and had to give up hard-won work conditions. For an 18-year-old looking for a career, the blue uniform with its gold captain's stripes may not have seemed as appealing as before.
That's reflected in pilot license data: The number of student pilot licenses that the Federal Aviation Administration issues has steadily declined from a peak of 98,000 in 1998 to 85,000 in 2006. The number of commercial pilot licenses issued has dropped from 124,000 in 1999 to 117,000 in 2006.
At the same time, major carriers like Northwest started relying more on smaller regional carriers to feed their network systems. Traditionally, those regional carriers were where new pilots paid their dues, working for about $25,000 or less per year for several years before going to the more lucrative airlines, where senior pilots could eventually make $200,000 or more. But as major carriers cut back on pilots' benefits at the top, they also created more low-paying jobs at the bottom. That's where the pilot shortage is being felt most now.
"Almost every regional carrier out there cannot hire enough pilots, and many of them have lowered the requirements down to the minimum FAA standards," says Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. Many regional airlines formerly required a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience for new pilots, according to aviation experts. The FAA minimum that some now require is 250 hours.
Northwest's pilot shortage stems from several factors. The airline has just emerged from bankruptcy, and, as a result of cost-cutting, it didn't have enough pilots on reserve to cover the overtime that typically comes with summer thunderstorm delays and peak travel-season crowds.
The pilots union contends the problem was mismanagement. The company denies that and says the problem was absenteeism – pilots calling in sick to make a point.
To respond to the shortage, Northwest has announced it will hire more pilots, cut back on the number of hours some pilots are required to fly, and reduce the number of flights scheduled for August.
"We expect our operations to improve with the steps we have put in place," says Roman Blahoski, a Northwest Airlines spokesman.
Northwest and the other major carriers have already recalled most of the 10,000 pilots they furloughed during the past five years. And in response to Northwest's current pilot crisis, the carrier also plans to hire 250 to 300 more. Mr. Darby says Northwest will have no problem finding people to fill those jobs even though major carriers are now paying pilots about 20 to 30 percent less than in 2000. Senior pilots can still eventually earn over six figures.
Some aviation analysts see this pilot shortage as just part of the aviation industry's boom and bust nature. "This is not the first time we've seen this kind of cycle," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington. "There's always been a little bit of a lag after some years of contraction."
The problem could be remedied, Professor Oster says, particularly if the regional carriers started increasing their base salaries for pilots to attract more young people. Pilot working conditions at the larger carriers may improve as major airlines rebound, says Darby. He believes that pilots will ultimately win back many of the concessions they've made.
Passengers like Ms. Montoya are counting on the industry to sort itself out. "It's getting to the point where you can't rely on the airline to get you to be where you need to be. It's really frustrating," she says. "But I've figured out how to work the system: You take the first flight out and hope you get there by the end of the day."