Five Creative Ways Airlines Are Addressing The Pilot Shortage

Is there a pilot shortage, or not? Depending on who you ask, you can get different answers. Flights are getting cancelled due to a lack of pilots, and small cities are losing service as a result. Over time this problem will correct itself with changes in pay, new training, and perhaps regulatory reform. None of these solutions will fix this summer, however. With strong demand for air travel both domestically and internationally, the airline industry has a challenge to make this summer work.

To address this near-term challenge, airlines have started to adopt some creative tactics. Not all of these may work, but they get to the heart of the matter – finding more pilots quickly. Here are some of the best ideas that are being tried:

Use Higher Pay As An Incentive

Incentives work, and often monetary incentives work the best. In order to keep pilots flying and maybe not jumping to a bigger airline, some airlines are offer large payments on a temporary basis. Within their regional airline, American Airlines is raising pilot pay by 50%, with some strings attached. But, with a first year captain able to earn $146 an hour, up from $78, this could be the difference from having their young captains move to a low-cost carrier that flies bigger jets.

These changes are positioned as temporary, but with contracts at multiple U.S airlines up for renewal it’s unclear how much these rates will be rolled back when we get to the end of next year. As a strategy to keep pilots on the property, though, it makes sense as the regionals are where most of the pilot attrition is happening.

Bring Back Retired Crew

Air India, an airline recently bought by the Tata group, is reaching out to retired pilots that still have gas in their tanks. The retirement age for pilots in India is 58 years old for public carriers, but with their recent purchase Air India is now private. As a result, they have retired pilots still in their late 50’s that could now fly to age 65, like in the U.S. Compared to bringing in someone new, these pilots are likely type-rated on the equipment, and experienced flying in the geography. As a result, they can be flying much more quickly.

While this opportunity has been created because of a difference in retirement ages in India, there likely are U.S. pilots who have left the profession for many reasons with still years available to legally fly commercially. It makes sense for airlines to comb their retiree lists and reach out to those with a special offer to return, as even for just a few years this could make sense. This could be the fastest way to bridge the time until the airlines’ own academies are producing enough graduates.

Think About Geography

This idea sounds simple, but some airlines have gotten more creative about were they source their recruitment pipeline. If United, for example, recruited many young first officers who lived in Atlanta, where Delta has a hub, or Dallas, where both American and Southwest are based, they risk that these pilots could be recruited away for a job closer to home shortly after being trained.

Even without this, dealing with increasing staff of commuting pilots is something that every airline will likely have to address. More commuters means more risk of missing flights, and more incentive to use parts of the their contract to get the time off needed to get back home. Still, as airlines look to fill spots, a pilot living in Las Vegas when your hub is in Detroit is still better than no pilot.

Staff Up With Trainers

Even modest increases in a training staff can have a multiplicative increase in throughput for pilot training. As efforts to find recruits are successful, the rate at which they can be trained to start flying in revenue service is critical. Importantly, people who may not be able to fly commercially can still be good trainers, such as those with medical conditions or who are over age 65. Training is a way to stay involved with the business for some, and airlines then don’t need to take a live pilot off the line to do training.

Most airlines have started academies to train new pilots. This is a good effort but won’t show results for several years. When pilot candidates are sourced now, though, getting them through training so that they could fly in just a few weeks could be the difference for later this summer reliability. Looking upstream at the pilot pipeline means ensuring that the training is not slowed or becomes a sticking point in getting crews to the line.

Start A New Airline

This may be the most creative and expensive way to address the issue, but SkyWest airlines is starting a new charter airline in order to be able to hire pilots that don’t have the experience needed to fly yet for Skywest proper. This charter airline will use 50-seat regional jets with 20 seats removed and fly under different Federal Air Regulations, and thus qualify to be able to hire first officers with 500 hours of flight experience versus 1,500 hours. This move, SkyWest says, will allow them to maintain service in a number of federally-subsidized routes to small cities under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.

The subsidy better be good, though, as 50-seat jets are not the most economic airplanes out there. Removing 40% of the seats doesn’t make the plane burn much less fuel or change the airframe’s weight. It does take away a lot of the revenue opportunity, making a marginal plane that much more challenging. Without the subsidy from the EAS program, it’s likely this strategy would never model out. For cities that would otherwise lose service, this may be the most creative way to maintain it even with a lesser-experienced first officer in the cockpit.

This summer is likely to see many challenges operationally due to lack of staff. Airlines have trimmed summer capacity even as demand stays strong, forcing fares to rise. Bringing pilot availability in line with pilot demand will likely take a creative mix of pay, regulatory reform, training support, and time. These ideas show just how true that necessity is the mother of invention, as airlines are figuring out all ways to get pilots into cockpits in the next few months.