- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2014

The nation’s airline industry could be hitting some turbulence, according to a government report that found pilots might be in short supply.

“Recent industry forecasts indicate that the global aviation industry is poised for growth,” said a report Friday from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm. “However, stakeholders have voiced concerns that imminent retirements, fewer pilots exiting the military, and new rules increasing the number of flight hours required to become a first officer for an airline could result in a shortage of qualified airline pilots.”

Airline pilots enjoy a relatively low unemployment rate, but that may mean demand for pilots is starting to outstrip supply, the GAO said. Plus, their wages have fallen since a high in 2000, while flight school is becoming more expensive.

“Such costs deter individuals from pursuing a pilot career,” investigators said. “Pilot schools that GAO interviewed reported fewer students entering their programs resulting from concerns over the high costs of education and low entry-level pay at regional airlines.”

The largest problems are at those regional airlines, the GAO said. While larger companies hire more experienced pilots, regional airlines often must hire people who recently graduated from flight school.

“Nearly all of the regional airlines that GAO interviewed reported difficulties finding sufficient numbers of qualified entry-level first officers,” the report said.

Estimates place the current number of civilian pilots in the U.S. at about 70,000. Both the airline industry and the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics expect a need of between 1,900 and 4,500 new pilots per year over the next decade.

Some studies the GAO reviewed suggested there is an adequate supply of pilots, including those currently working overseas or in the military, or who might be in a non-flight-related job.

“However, whether these pilots choose to seek employment with U.S. airlines depends on the extent to which pilot job opportunities arise, and on the wages and benefits airlines offer,” investigators said.

The airline industry has been trying to improve recruiting and offer pilots greater incentives, but the GAO said many experts suggested that the Federal Aviation Administration could take action as well, including providing more financial aid or expanding the path to become a pilot.

The GAO said some groups have suggested that FAA allow hours spent in simulators to count for flight training, or more heavily weight the time pilots spend practicing flying large commercial carriers as opposed to small single-propeller planes.

“Such competency-based training for pilots is not new and focuses on the training outcome in terms of how well students perform rather than simply meeting specified numbers of training hours,” the GAO said. “Thus, training hours are replaced by sets of defined, measurable performance criteria.”

Investigators noted that the FAA is currently reviewing the requirements to earn a pilot’s license and whether they should be changed.