As we reported last week, a severe pilot shortage is leading airlines to reduce capacity and hike ticket prices as the busy summer travel season begins. And this is no passing storm. As United CEO Scott Kirby told investors,
"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.”
In part, the crisis can be traced to a Covid shutdown-prompted wave of early retirements and a coinciding lull in pilot hiring, training and licensing.
However, the airline industry’s attempts to recover from that disruption are being thwarted by an exorbitant pilot training requirement imposed by Congress as a knee-jerk reaction to a 2009 plane crash.
In February of that year, Colgan Air Flight 3407 stalled and crashed into a house on final approach to Buffalo, killing 50 people. The crash was attributed to pilot error.
Congress leapt into action, animated by one of the most destructive governmental urges of all: “We have to do something.”
In this case, that “something” was sextupling the number of hours needed before being granted an Airline Transport Pilot License—from 250 hours to 1,500.
Never mind that the Colgan Air pilots had logged many more hours than that—3,379 for the pilot and 2,244 for the co-pilot. To legislators eager to make headlines, much more had to be much better.
Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t work any better with public policy than it does with pills.
The mindlessly monumental number of hours may actually be detrimental to pilot development. Keep in mind, those 1,500 hours aren’t supervised training hours addressing various scenarios. Simply tooling around with your girlfriend in single-engine Cessna counts.
Testifying before Congress, Regional Airline Association president Faye Malarkey Black noted that, before the change, airlines would hire pilots soon after they’d completed an academic program.
“Now, there’s a gap in the path of pilot development, with pilots forced to suspend their training at a critical juncture to spend time building hours. Most pilots fill this time in unstructured environments…One airline put it this way: ‘We waste a lot of time in training breaking bad habits pilot acquire while trying to quickly get to 1,500 hours’.”
Meanwhile, the higher requirement presents a daunting barrier to entry. The change doesn’t only cost aspiring pilots six times as much time—but also six times as much money.
In fact, it’s been said there isn’t really a shortage of pilots. There’s a shortage of people willing to devote so much time and money for the privilege of applying for a job that could pay just $30,000 to start.
Pilot unions were just fine with the change, and its resulting forced scarcity. As pilot Tracy Price—who’s critical of the higher requirement—told John Stossel on Stossel TV, “Fewer applicants means higher pay.”
Airlines were struggling to staff up even before Covid-19, thanks to the effects of the 1,500-hour requirement, a wave of pilots reaching mandatory retirement at age 65, and a decrease in the number of pilots produced by the U.S. military.
Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta, and United, has asked federal aviation authorities for an exemption that would allow the company to hire pilots with 750 hours.
However, regardless of its real-world value, what bureaucrat wants to be on record as having cut the flying experience requirement in half?