By Daniel Morley
Opinion: Lowering Minimums and Raising Retirement Age Won’t Solve Pilot Shortage
As travelers return to the skies, following the suppression of demand from the Covid-19 pandemic, airlines are facing a familiar challenge, a pilot shortage. Before the pandemic, airlines were already facing a wave of pilot retirements in the coming years. More stringent requirements for certification have slowed down the number of pilots qualified to fly for commercial airlines. The pandemic provided temporary relief for airlines as demand was severely depressed, but the rapid recovery has led to exemplified problems.
Recently Republic Airways, a regional partner for American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, has requested an exemption for pilots at their Lift Academy to obtain their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate at 750 hours. Currently, the only pilots who can obtain an ATP certificate at 750 hours are former military pilots. Republic is arguing that their training program, through Lift, meets and exceeds the same standards that military pilots go through. Presently graduates of their Lift Academy must acquire 1,500 flight hours before they can start flying for Republic.
The 1,500-hour rule was introduced in 2013 in the wake of the fatal crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 outside of Buffalo in 2009. Although both the pilots of flight 3407 had more than 1,500 hours, the NTSB found issues in their training and development. The 1,500-hour rule was introduced as a measure designed to increase safety and provide new pilots more flight time before being placed in a commercial aircraft. Prior to 2013, new first officers in the industry were only required to have 250 hours before they could be hired by airlines.
The rule has had a multitude of effects. On safety, the rule seems to have achieved its goal. The Colgan Air crash has been the most recent fatal airplane crash in the U.S. For pilots, pay and benefits have continually gone up since being introduced. In 2007, the average first-year pay for first officers at regional airlines was $22.25 per flight hour. In 2022, the same average first-year pay for first officers at regional airlines is $47.50 per flight hour.
Rest requirements have also increased, giving pilots a better quality of life. Reducing flight time requirements could not only impact safety but also impact the quality of life for current and new pilots. The reduction in the flight time requirement also does not solve the true issue in the industry. The shortage of pilots is mostly on the captain’s side of the industry rather than on the first officer. A lack of qualified captains will not be solved by reducing minimums for first officers.
The lack of qualified captains is an issue that was exacerbated by the pandemic. In order to qualify as a captain, pilots must have 1,000 hours of flight time with a commercial airline. As flying was severely reduced from the pandemic, first officers at airlines were unable to flight hours at the rate they previously had. This has led to a gap in qualified captain candidates as airlines begin to run out of qualified first officers. Again lowering the minimum requirement to become a first officer for an airline does not solve this problem.
On the other end of the experience spectrum, earlier this week it was reported that legislation could soon be introduced to raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67. The age has been in place since 2007 when the age was raised from 60 to 65. On paper, it seems like a good solution for solving a shortage of pilots. Retirements are predicted to hit a level of 3,000 per year in the next few years as many older pilots will hit the 65-year benchmark. However, this solution also doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Pilots are still going to have to retire. At the least, raising the retirement age will just push the problem two years down the line. The same amount of pilots who are due to retire in 2022 will be the same as in 2024. It also doesn’t account for pilots who will still choose to retire at 65. Pilots who, for most of their careers, have been planning to retire at 65 may simply choose to do so.
It can also create more problems for airlines than solutions. Pilots who would continue flying to the age of 67 will most likely be at the top end of pay scales. They also typically have the most favorable schedules, with the most days off. This means the airlines will get less work from these pilots, while also seeing higher labor costs.
Senior pilots are also more likely to be flying widebody aircraft, rather than narrowbody aircraft. Widebody aircraft are typically used on long, international flights, a market that is still not recovered from the pandemic. Although airlines could use more widebody aircraft for domestic flights, currently with a stronger demand market, the higher cost and less efficient schedules would offset many of the gains, at a cost that will likely be passed onto the traveler.
Keeping pilots on passed the current retirement age may also have other knock-on effects. These senior pilots would hold onto captain positions that qualified first officers could be brought into. It could also exacerbate a growing issue at airlines, a lack of instructors. Many airline simulator instructors are former pilots who have reached their retirement age and want to teach the next generation of pilots.
The pilot shortage appears to be here to stay. Airlines, government agencies, and travelers should not accept increased risk, and potential increased cost to solve the shortage. That being said, solutions are far and few in-between. In order to encourage people to become pilots, efforts should be made to lower, or offset the cost of training, as well as providing more developed pathways for new pilots to procure their flying hours.
For helping to keep qualified pilots, airlines should be focusing on improving pay, benefits, and quality of life rather than stop-gap measures such as increasing the retirement age. By focusing on improving what they can offer pilots they are more likely to retain more pilots than having an additional two years of the highest cost pilots. Despite everyone’s effort, the pilot shortage will most likely be here to stay for the next few years, with current efforts only kicking the can down the road.