As the US pilot shortage is reaching its worst level in decades, airline carriers are being forced to think outside the box for ways to get new pilots. While salaries have been increasing along with fuel prices, they have also been increased to cover bonuses and larger salaries for the pilots. It’s unfortunately still not enough to keep the industry from scrambling over what to do to make things up.
Some industries are dropping their four-year degree requirement like Delta, hiring pilots from Australia like Frontier, or in American Airlines’ case selling bus tickets for short fares. While this outside-the-box thinking will help, this has been a problem in the making for years, but it will also take years to fix as well. COVID brought this problem to a head when many took early retirement packages being offered in 2020.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby spoke up during an earnings call back in April about how the industry is being changed. “The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years.” Reaching these plans is ultimately one of the most important things to any airline. It keeps investors flocking to their business and ultimately keeps them in business.
Those who took these packages in early 2020 took them at their peak and are now looking at the situation largely with joy for not being stuck in it. Meanwhile, companies like Mesa Air which services both United and American airlines from their Phoenix-based location are stuck. Lost $43 million in the last quarter alone as the costs mounted. Given the 120 days it takes to replace a pilot who gives their two-week notice, it’s been incredibly difficult.
Most of these smaller, regional airlines serve as a finishing school for the big airlines. These pilots use companies like Mesa to prove themselves outside of flight school, get their first couple of years in, and move on to bigger companies with much better pay. Even then, there is no guarantee that they will be able to find the kind of routes and schedules they want. Many airlines like Alaska Air and JetBlue are being forced to scale back their expansion plans, and in some routes, just outright abandoning them.
With the current $92,000 cost for a seven-month, full-time, intensive program at ATP Flight School, it can take up to 18-months to get enough hours for pilots to fly, and usually, they get them by being instructing student pilots or flying those beach banners. These kinds of gigs don’t pay like the $350,000 salary for a big airline pilot, but they feed the hours while paying enough to make living comfortable. With this kind of wait, airlines are offering low-interest loans, and other financial incentives to help get people through these programs.
United Airlines on the other hand went the opposite direction this December. Opening the United Aviate Academy in Goodyear, AZ, the airline has cut out one of the biggest barriers to getting new pilots, the middleman. For new students, they are covering the training up and until the point of receiving their private pilots’ license, which can run up to $17,000. With a lofty goal of ensuring its student body is comprised of at least half women and people of color, United is trying to raise the bar while meeting the challenges as this post-COVID world is starting.