Student aviators take flight amid pilot shortage

As the aviation industry struggles to hire enough pilots, several major airlines are partnering with flight schools or starting their own training programs to create a more diverse pilot of future pilots.

At United Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona, more than 200 aspiring aviators are learning to fly in hopes of becoming a commercial pilot.

Ashley Montano, who has two degrees in criminology, left her job analyzing prison-sentencing data and took out a loan to attend Aviate.

“I thought it was definitely the best time to enter the field,” Montano said. “With United in their push to bring in more women and people of color and diversify the flight deck, that it was really a perfect opportunity and the perfect time, I think, for me to make that career change and start something new.”

Sara McCauley, another student at United’s Aviate Academy, hopes to follow her father and fly for United.

“The lack of woman representation definitely discouraged me in the beginning, but now I just see it as … well I get to be the first wave. Well, the first big wave of women,” McCauley said.

Tuition for flying schools and the cost of flight time are not cheap. Reaching 1,500 hours of required flight time is often estimated to cost between $70,000 and $100,000.

Aviate charges $71,250, and when students are done they need to find work as a flight instructor to build enough hours to get hired by a regional airline.

“What we’re doing is trying to train our students, get them to 1500 hours in the safest, most efficient way so they can fill those slots at the at the regional airlines,” said Dana Donati, CEO, United Aviate Academy.

Airlines have complained about a shortage for several years, but they made it worse during the pandemic by encouraging pilots to take early retirement when air travel collapsed in 2020. Helane Becker, an analyst for Cowen who has tracked the issue closely, estimates that 10,000 pilots have left the field since then.

Meanwhile, airlines have been in a hiring frenzy that is likely to continue for several years as the carriers replace pilots who reach the federal mandatory retirement age of 65.

The government estimates that there will be about 18,000 openings per year for airline and commercial pilots this decade, with many of those replacing retirees. However, the Federal Aviation Administration issued on average only half that number of pilot licenses from 2017 through 2021.

Southwest Airlines has more than 700 planes but parks 40 to 45 of them each day because it lacks pilots to fly them, said CEO Bob Jordan at a recent media event. That amounts to more than 200 flights a day or up to 8% of the Dallas-based airline’s flying. Southwest expects to hire 2,250 pilots this year after adding about 1,200 last year, mostly by drawing from smaller airlines.

The pilot shortage is most severe at smaller carriers that don’t pay as well and serve as stepping stones to the big airlines. Many of them operate regional flights under the names of American Eagle, United Express and Delta Connection.

“Regional airlines, the airlines that operate the 50 to 76 seat aircraft that go mostly to smaller communities, have been losing their pilots to the larger airlines and struggling to hire new pilots to replace the pilots they’ve lost. And as a result, we have seen hundreds of communities in the U.S. lose some or all of their airline service,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research:

Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, says those carriers have parked more than 400 planes for lack of pilots, “and air service is collapsing as a result.” Black estimates that regional airlines are short by 8,000 pilots and the trade group says a dozen smaller cities have lost all air service — about 50 more have lost half or more of their flights — despite the broad rise in travel demand.

The shortage is giving pilot unions leverage in contract negotiations that were paused by the onset of the pandemic. New contracts are certain to include hefty pay raises that will drive up costs for airlines.

The pilot shortage started even before the pandemic. Over the past decade or two, industry officials warned it was coming as travel boomed and thousands of U.S. pilots approached mandatory retirement age. The Federal Aviation Administration raised that age from 60 to 65 in 2007, which pushed the problem off for a few years.

For decades, airlines enjoyed an ample supply of pilots, most of whom came out of the military fully trained and with extensive experience, but the military has its own shortage.

Not everyone agrees, however, that there is a shortage. The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest union of pilots in North America, says that over the past decade, airlines hired only about half of the people who received FAA licenses that let them fly airliners.

The union argues that airlines are hyping a shortage narrative to water down qualification standards and hire inexperienced flyers at lower pay. It says that airlines should increase pay to attract more applicants.