The next time you fly a regional carrier — and chances are good you will given that half of US domestic flights are operated by regionals — chew on this stat: A first-year regional airline pilot makes $18,000 to $20,000 before taxes.
Yes, that’s right: When it comes to regional airlines (these are the connection subcontractors who fly on behalf of the major airline carriers), the pilot manning your flight, as it climbs tens of thousands of feet into the air, earns about as much as someone flipping burgers at McDonald’s.
Ready for more? A fourth and fifth-year regional pilot makes $25,000 to $28,000, also before taxes. Now swallow this: The best of the regional pilots are quickly being snatched up by the major carriers, such as Delta and United, as they begin hiring new pilots for the first time in several years.
That spells one very big issue for travelers: a looming pilot shortage ahead.
Start Road Trippin’?
“The seriousness of the possible pilot shortage cannot be underestimated,” says Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel industry analyst. “The pilot shortage won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen sooner than many realize.”
How soon? Some say it’s already started.
Beyond the major domestic carriers, the competition for pilot talent is coming from abroad, too, as this plush offer from a Shanghai-based carrier shows.
“Foreign carriers are already paying huge premiums to US/FAA-certified pilots, further drying up the domestic pilot pool,” says Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst in Port Washington, NY. “Absent recognition of the problem, the pilot market will only become tighter, and airline service more unreliable,” says Mann.
Others are more optimistic. “One way or another, I figure carriers will figure out a way to find the pilots they need long before there’s a reliability issue,” says Patrick Smith, the airline pilot-turned-blogger of AskThePilot.com and author of the new book, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.
Rising costs, though, may be harder to ignore.
“A lack of pilots means fewer flights — smaller cities will be disproportionately affected,” says industry analyst Harteveldt. “Fewer pilots also means fewer flights, period — flying may become less convenient and more expensive, since the supply of seats may decline.” (And for us at the Travel Channel, that’s about as good a reason as any to start thinking of more Road Trip ideas.)
How did we get here?
Blame the graying of America (including its pilots), as well as a shortage of younger pilots being recruited from military ranks, which are facing their own dwindling numbers. Then there’s the lousy pay.
“An aspiring aviator has to ask: ‘Is it worth sinking $50,000 or more into one’s primary training?’” says Patrick Smith of AskThePilot.com.
Factor in the FAA’s new requirements, says Smith, which call for new pilots to log a minimum 1,500 flight hours before training with an airline.
“The time it will take to build the requisite number of flight hours to apply for a job, plus, the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major [carrier],” says Smith, spell, in his mind, one very big conclusion: This isn’t exactly a safe career path.
Fewer Pilots, Where Now?
No one’s faulting the FAA’s new ruling.
“Airlines can’t compromise on training; it’s essential that we maintain our high standards of safety,” says analyst Harteveldt.
But adjustments on the part of carriers will need to be made, adds Mann. “The new 1,500-hour requirement … will require significant upward adjustments to starting salaries, and generally, to regional pilot compensation.”
More compensation may spell higher ticket prices. But that may be the price consumers pay to ensure greater pilot numbers in the regional ranks.