- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

Airlines are preparing for a major shortage of pilots and are trying to hire more of them to meet the demands of the next decade.

The airline industry is looking to hire 65,000 pilots by 2012 — including 12,000 this year — but is fighting a slew of retirements, a dearth of new recruits and competition from overseas carriers and the U.S. military.

Commercial air travel has grown 8 percent in the past five years, from 683 million passengers per year in 2001 to 740 million in 2006, and the Federal Aviation Administration expects that number to jump to 1.2 billion passengers by 2020.

The industry is concerned thatthere will be a void left when the current group of pilots is forced into mandatory retirement at age 60.

“I think that between 2010 and 2020 the pilot shortage is really going to be exacerbated with those retirements,” said Daniel Elwell, assistant administrator for the FAA.

To buy the industry time, the FAA is working to change its retirement policy to allow one of two pilots in a crew to fly up to the age of 65.

“Studies [have shown that] the population is healthier, older and what were [safety] concerns a long time ago really aren’t concerns today,” FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told The Washington Times recently.

Researchers estimate that 3,800 pilots could be added to the national supply if the retirement age were raised to 65.

But the airline industry may have bigger concerns, as many of the United States’ current pilots are being wooed by foreign airlines.

“There is a worldwide shortage looming,” Mr. Elwell said. “We’re already seeing it in other countries. Japan can’t get pilots fast enough; [neither can] carriers in the Middle East, so they are hiring American pilots.”

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many of the 10,000 pilots who were furloughed opted to take early-retirement packages, changed professions or sought jobs with international carriers.

Jet Airways, an airline in Bombay, is one company that has been pursuing former U.S. pilots for their experience flying wide-body airplanes.

Kit Darby, owner of Aviation Information Resources Inc., an industry research firm in Atlanta, said some Indian companies are luring U.S. pilots by offering them a tax-free salary.

“So just as the domestic demand for experienced pilots is rising, foreign airlines are poaching our pilots,” Mr. Darby said. “And they are doing a pretty good job.”

“This is a global industry,” said Steve Lott, a spokesman from the International Air Transportation Association, a trade association in Montreal. “And the neat thing about flying commercially is that you can take that skill anywhere in the world.”

Illness and absenteeism among domestic pilots are further diminishing the amount of reserve pilots, with some companies having to cancel domestic flights.

Northwest Airlines Corp. canceled 8 percent of its flights over the July 28 weekend because of its struggle to put pilots in the cockpit.

The nation’s fifth-largest airline by traffic has been plagued by pilot absenteeism and sick calls that have depleted its reserve work force during the end of the past two months.

Northwest pilots fly 90 hours per month, owing to company restrictions, so sometimes the number of reserve pilots runs short at the end of the month, said Capt. Monty Montgomery, a spokesman for the Northwest Airlines Pilots Association.

“We were insufficiently staffed with pilots to fly the regular schedule,” he said. “Our pilots are already flying at a very high maximum, and we are reluctant to take on extra hours that keeps us away from our families.”

As a result, Northwest has cut back some of its flights, reduced the amount of flight hours to 86 a month and focused on hiring more pilots.

The company said in its second-quarter earnings statement July 31 that it had recalled all furloughed pilots and will begin hiring new pilots to increase its reserves.

Northwest is not alone. According to Aviation Information Resources Inc., domestic airlines have hired 6,000 pilots in the first half of the year and are on pace to surpass the 8,000 pilots who were hired last year.

But that could become a challenge if the next generation of pilots is unable to take the controls.

A portion of today’s domestic-pilot experience is deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and can’t be hired by civilian carriers.

“What’s happening with the American pilots is that the Air Force and Navy and Army pipeline is all but shut down because of the war,” Mr. Elwell said.

Many prospective civilian pilots have been discouraged by the pay cuts and reduced benefit packages in the industry.

Although earnings for airline pilots are among the highest in the nation, salaries have declined in recent years.

The average annual salary for a first officer in his fifth year in 2004 was $95,000, but that fell to $87,000 in 2004 and eroded to $83,000 in 2007, according to Aviation Information Resources Inc.

To offset that, recruiters are offering steep bonuses to draw in new pilots, and some airlines are offering recruiting bonuses as high as $500 for company employees who find new pilots.

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