Flight risk: Commercial pilots in short supply


Listen to this article

It's a standard college recruiting pitch — except in this case, the whole company could be at stake.

On a recent Thursday afternoon outside Willard Airport, 17 Parkland College aviation students listened to all of the reasons they ought to come fly for Trans States Airlines once they're licensed.

Regional carriers like it are tasked with handling flights that feed into major airport hubs, and all non-military rookie pilots must work at that level before joining a big-name commercial airline like Delta or Southwest.

Trans States representatives came to Champaign-Urbana to try to build brand loyalty before the job hunt starts for the 40 students in Parkland's program, 17 of whom showed up to hear the sales job.

It's just one strategy used in the face of a looming nationwide pilot shortage.

In February, CNN reported that a pilot shortage led to so many grounded flights for regional Republic Airways that it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection. According to Boeing and Oliver Wyman's Airline Economic Analysis, there will be a demand of 95,000 North American pilots from last year to 2034 — and just 64,000 pilots available to supply it.

For aviation students, this makes their prospects almost too good to be true — they can pick from guaranteed jobs if they can successfully qualify for and travel the expansive, but expensive, road of education and training.

However, that road is scarring the profession with damage that could take congressional action to reverse.

After Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash-landed in 2009 near Buffalo, killing all 49 people aboard and one on the ground, Congress raised the required number of training hours for commercial pilot certification — from 250 to 1,500.

That number shrinks to 1,000 after a prospective pilot obtains a four-year aviation degree, 1,250 with a two-year aviation degree and 750 for discharged military pilots. Those regulations vary for non-commercial organizations, such as charter airlines, which aren't required by Federal Aviation Administration regulations to adhere to the commercial airline rules.

If the shortage continues as expected, commercial outfits — the majority of which contract with regional airlines — will be slammed next. Sybil Phillips, the chief pilot and director of aviation at Parkland, doesn't shy away from saying the industry is going through "interesting times."

'A big stress for me'

Confronted with a burdensome budget shortfall, the University of Illinois closed its Institute of Aviation in 2013-14 and transferred operations over to Parkland.

Students at both Parkland and the UI can still participate in the program and earn a two-year associate aviation degree or pilot certification.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the dropout rate for aviation students was around 50 percent, Phillips said. What worries her more, though, is the declining number of aviation professors.

Parkland could use two to four more, she said, but many candidates, in response to the shortage, are increasingly being courted by commercial airlines — even if all they can contribute are a few years of work before mandated retirement at 65.

"Locally, the shortage of flight instructors is a big stress for me," Phillips said with a solemn pause. "It's going to be very interesting to see how the shortage plays out in the next five to 10 years."

That stress is spilling over to Willard, home to seven daily flights from Envoy Air, a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Airlines. Six of those go to Chicago O'Hare, the other lands in Dallas.

During a Sept. 13 city council meeting, Willard's executive director received Champaign's public support to pursue adding a route to Charlotte. Gene Cossey said American Airlines needs to wait for its pilot numbers to stabilize before that can happen.

"The shortage is affecting us right now," Cossey said. "American is saying they're slim on pilots."

Landing a much-coveted Charlotte route also depends on how well Cossey and his staff communicate the area's need and demand for it. He said that involves meetings to drum up business and community support.

Overall, Cossey said he doesn't see bankruptcy in Envoy's future because of its relationship with American.

"One side (of flight shortage perceptions) is doom and gloom and the other is that it's a moderate problem," Cossey said. "The truth is that it's probably somewhere in the middle."

Experience argument

The 1,500-hours requirement is not without critics. The majority of aviation students and professionals contacted by The News-Gazette have unfavorable opinions of it.

The naysayers include Henry Fineberg, who graduated from Parkland's aviation program in May and is training to become a flight instructor.

"More experience is good but it might be a little overkill," Fineberg said, noting how he believes the requirement is contributing to the overall pilot shortage.

Count Daren Goembel, a captain at the Flightstar charter service in Savoy, among those who agree with the rule.

Flightstar requires that its captains have 1,200 hours of training.

"You've got to do something to mitigate that gap between being licensed and having experience," Goembel said. "It makes it more difficult but overall I don't think there's anything wrong for requiring more experience."

Flight training hours can accrue by providing lessons, hauling anything from cargo to corpses and flying banners, among other tasks. The time it takes to finish the hours creates a sizeable gap between graduation and launching a career.

Fran Tao, a UI senior majoring in psychology and political science, takes pilot certification classes at Parkland and is debating whether she wants to enter that pre-career gap.

"It's like two years of your life," Tao said of the commitment to finishing training hours.

Bill Giannetti, president and chief pilot at Flightstar, doesn't mince words when critiquing the requirement.

"It's unnecessary and it makes no sense," he said. "Hours have never been a good indicator of pilot skill. Military pilots are flying around in a jet fighter with 500 hours of experience. I believe the rule will be changed very shortly or else the airline industry will dry up."

'Supply and demand'

While laying his career foundation in the 1990s, Flightstar captain Martin Birge was one of many pilots who worked two jobs.

He had to in order to get by — back then, rookie salaries ranged from the $20,000s all the way down to minimum wage.

"I waited tables at night and flew six to seven days a week for six hours each day to build my initial flight time," Birge said.

Those wages are now starting to double in response to the shortage. Phillips predicts that will ultimately be what solves the problem, although it could also be what drives up ticket prices.

"I wouldn't advocate that (wages) go down more," Phillips said. "It's simple supply and demand."

In addition, perks like signing bonuses, raises and retention pay are becoming more and more attractive.

"They're throwing money at the problem," said Scott Conrad, a captain for Trans States Airlines.

Aviation students can end up paying more for air time than they do for tuition. At Parkland, Phillips said it costs around $60,000 to receive a commercial pilot license without also majoring in aviation. That amount doesn't include the air time fees for finishing training hours after leaving Parkland.

For the 2016-17 school year, Parkland's aviation program charges $157, $370 or $529 per semester hour, depending on where the student lives.

Additional course fees range from $1,992 at the low end to $9,894 at the highest.

Parkland aviation student Tristan Polk said he is taking out multiple loans to make it all work. Airline-sponsored scholarships, from what he can tell, are starting to increase.

"(Aviation) is more of a lifestyle than a job," Polk said. "You have to live around it and the cost."

The gender gap

Another way to recruit more pilots? Ditch the image of aviation as a boys club.

According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, around 97 percent of all commercial pilots are male. Being a female exchange student from China, Tao said, "I want to prove that I can do anything I want — that gender is never an issue."

Community-building opportunities are springing out of the gender gap, including several groups and scholarships centered around advancing women in aviation.

Tao is a member of the Female Aviators Sticking Together group on Facebook.

"There's aviation memes, ratings news, flying fashion tips, pictures of babies in 'My Mom Flies' onesies. ... It's really supportive," she said.

Goembel says the industry gender gap is indisputable. He has seen it first-hand throughout his 10 years in the profession.

"Flat out, you have more white males in the industry than any other gender or race," Goembel said. "It will take a lot of time before that changes."

'A literal dream'

Unavoidable downsides to the job — the time away from home, the risks of air travel — can also drive potential pilots away, although some will have enough passion to push those aside.

"Flying is a literal dream," Fineberg said. "I know I couldn't let it go."

Both Birge and Goembel said they can manage their frequent time away from home because their families act as a strong support system.

With all the talk of aviation's disadvantages and the pilot shortage, Phillips wants her colleagues to remember how the increased demand for air travel factors in.

"I always think: Who's in the back of the plane?" Phillips said. "It's business people who are also gone from home multiple days of the week.

"We're in a society where people travel for work a lot more and we're on the go a lot more."