TOP STORIES A pilot shortage that has been brewing for years...

A pilot shortage that has been brewing for years is exacerbating the summer travel chaos.

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The number of new pilots entering the industry is below demand.

NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images


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NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

The number of new pilots entering the industry is below demand.

NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

High gas prices. Bad weather. Too many people traveling.

These are some of the factors causing travel chaos this summer, but a pilot shortage that has been brewing for years has also added to the strain on the industry.

“The problem with airlines is when you don’t have enough apron staff, when you don’t have enough operational agents, it just delays flights,” said Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “But when you don’t have a pilot, they are canceled or delayed for hours as the pilots move into position to move that plane.”

During the pandemic, thousands of pilots have received early retirement packages, and disruptions in pilot training programs have brought fewer people into the industry.

According to Faye Malarka Black, who heads the Regional Airline Association (RAA), this exacerbated the existing problem, as the number of new pilots was too low before the virus spread.

“This is something we’ve been warning about for over a decade, and of course the pandemic has made things worse, but I really want to stress that we need to drop the notion that there was a lack of pilot projects right after the pandemic. Black said.

To combat the economic impact of the pandemic, airlines have received $54 billion in taxpayer-funded aid as payroll support. Its goal was to keep pilots and other airline employees ready to go when air travel demand returns. Instead, airlines have provided pilots and other workers with these early retirement packages and layoff incentives, leading to more staff shortages.

However, Captain Casey Murray said the pandemic provided a short-term reprieve from shortages because people traveled less, meaning those who were still flying could meet reduced demand. But now that demand has returned, airlines are trying to catch up.

To do this, they turned to regional airlines, which usually serve as the starting point for a career.

“It’s a natural career order,” Black said. “It has always been like this, but the pandemic has accelerated it because there were early retirements. So this big merger of retirements that we saw coming up suddenly happened years ahead of schedule.”

People walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, June 27, 2022 in Salt Lake City.

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Rick Bowmer/AP

People walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, June 27, 2022 in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer/AP

So as airlines filled their vacancies with regional carrier pilots and fewer new pilot certificates were issued in the last two years, there were “fewer pilots than ever,” according to Black.

This has made it difficult for regional carriers to maintain their services and collaborate with major airlines, Black said, which directly impacts the connectivity of smaller communities.

“So, for example, a community like Chattanooga, where they lost over a third of their air service, could lose a direct flight to Washington or a direct flight to New York,” she said. “It’s that meaningful measure of their connection that was in one place before the pandemic, and the exit from the pandemic is in a completely different place.”

Years of pipeline cuts and more ahead

Black said one of the reasons for the shortage of pilots over the years was how expensive it was to get started in the field. Pilot training can cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 or more, and financial aid doesn’t cover it all.

“You can’t just take out a student loan and expect it to cover your entire pilot training costs,” she said. “This is far from the actual cost, so novice pilots are forced to make up this difference out of pocket, and many of them cannot.”

Some airlines have set up training programs or even their own flight schools to deal with the shortage. But they may not be able to solve the shortage immediately.

“It takes 60 to 90 days to interview, hire and train a pilot,” Murray said. “So the airlines have to be very active and everyone is competing for the same shrinking pool.”

The unofficial start of summer on Memorial Day weekend has provided an unsettling glimpse of what’s in store for travelers in the midst of the holiday season.

David Zalubowski/AP


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David Zalubowski/AP

The unofficial start of summer on Memorial Day weekend has provided an unsettling glimpse of what’s in store for travelers in the midst of the holiday season.

David Zalubowski/AP

Bureau of Labor Statistics projects some 14,500 pilot vacancies each year could open up over the next decade, but it is not clear how many new pilots these vacancies will fill.

Federal Aviation Administration, which issues new pilot licenseshas issued an average of just 6,500 certificates per year over the past decade. And as the virus has disrupted the curriculum, there has been a decline in admissions and, in turn, a slight drop in certifications in 2020 and 2021.

Aspiring pilots are also required to have flown 1,500 hours and once they become airline pilots they must retire at age 65.

“So, since the pandemic hasn’t led to this shortage of pilots, it’s not temporary. The situation will worsen if we do not take action on several fronts,” she said.

Some of those actions include lowering financial barriers to aviation education, she said, to make it easier for more people, especially those from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds, to get to work.

Black said politicians also have a role to play.
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“Educational institutions are not enough. Those that are are overloaded. [is] there is not enough financial support for people who want to become pilots,” she said.

“And so for all these big investments in the industry to really bear fruit, we need some support for pilots in the very early stages from politicians so that they can have this great career and access high wages and rewards from the other side; and we can also keep the communities connected,” Black said.

A radio interview between Ari Shapiro and Capt. Casey Murray was prepared by Brianna Scott and edited by Katherine Fox. David Shaper contributed reporting for this article.

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