With thousands of pilots on furlough it seems counter intuitive to say a shortage is coming. However the numbers are clear, and show a steep decline in commercial pilot licenses from 1990 to 2007 (last year FAA data is available). So the question is who will fly the airliners of tomorrow?
Active Commercial Pilot Licenses (Airplane) have plummeted from 128,628 in 1990 to 91,282 in 2007 a 30% drop. In the same period of time the Airline Transport Pilot rating (ATP) has climbed 25% (105,830 to 139,554). An ATP is required to captain a scheduled airliner of any size. A cursory look shows a 35% shortfall in the future. Certainly not all ATPs are currently flying due to the economy and state of air travel in the USA. However, this pool of experienced aviators is evaporating rapidly; and even the furloughed pilots are getting older. The International (IATA) and domestic regulators (FAA) have kicked the can down the road five years by raising mandatory retirment to 65, but a year and a half of that delay tactic has already expired with no sound solution.
IATA has come up with a dangerous try at a solution for International airlines; the Multi-crew Pilot License (MPL). Basically the MPL will certify a student in approximately a year with less hours (in an actual aircraft) than an average airline pilot flies in two weeks and a mere 200 hours in a CAT IV simulator. That doesn’t even meet the standards for a Private pilot (40 hours) or a commercial pilot (250 or 190 hours if in a Part 141 school) let alone an ATP (1,500).
So what is the solution? First we must examine the cause; quite simply the job is not economically feasible at today’s entry pay rates. Further complicating the economics is the fact that the top end pay no longer is the draw it once was. There is no return on investment. In the nineteen fifties a pilot license could be purchased for $100, a Captain was one of the highest paid professionals in the country and a first Officer made up to 10 times what a Police Officer, for example, made.
Last year my son paid $150 dollars for a single flight hour of instruction. When he moves to the right seat of a Jet Airliner he will make less than half what a St. Louis County Police Officer will make and his training (Policeman) is free (St. Louis County). He will be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and won’t even equal what the maximum pay of a Police Officer gets until he makes Regional Captain, which could take years.
I use the Police Profession because the personalities are similar; someone who is adventurous, not afraid of danger and generally does not want to sit at a desk. Had I used doctor, Lawyer or Nurse Anesthetist, any profession that required a similar investment in time or funds, the numbers would be eye watering. My daughter will enter the Nurse Anesthetist program in the fall; when she graduates she will make 10 times what her older brother will. And yes, I did have him in pre-med before he decided he absolutely had to enter the family business.
Back to the solution; what is it? Simple really, if the pay is not commensurate with the skills and cost required you will not get enough applicants to do it at all, let alone the best and brightest. Instant airline pilots via the MPL program, besides being unsafe IMO, still doesn’t solve the problem because they cannot be a Captain. Ultimately you will get what you pay for.