Air travel is a mess. Here’s why.
Canceled flights and delays are infuriating travelers this summer. But the pilot shortage causing disruptions has been a long time in the making.
Like many industries, airlines are experiencing staff shortages. But unlike other industries that can hire new employees and get them working in weeks or even days, airlines require years of costly training to bring aspiring aviators on board.
In other words, there aren’t enough pilots to go around, and there’s no quick fix for a staffing shortage that has been years in the making and compounded by a global pandemic.
Anticipating a pilot shortage 15 years ago, airlines increased the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65. “That note has now come due,” said Kevin Kuhlmann, associate chair of the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Covid prompted many pilots to take early retirement because of a lack of flying opportunities. “Those who left the industry because of Covid restrictions only widened the existing gap,” said Kuhlmann.
Now, with Covid restrictions easing, the demand for air travel has increased exponentially. But faced with pilot and other staffing shortages, many airlines have already canceled thousands of flights in the summer season.
Southwest Airlines cut nearly 20,000 summer flights, according to a report from the Dallas Morning News. Delta is canceling 100 daily departures from airports in the U.S. and Latin America, affecting travel from July 1 to Aug. 7. The carrier published an open letter to customers June 17 acknowledging the labor shortage and customers’ frustrations.
Over Memorial Day weekend, 2,700 flights were canceled, and in a travel surge coinciding with Father’s Day and the Juneteenth holiday, another 19,000 flights across the country were either canceled or delayed.
Hoping to step into the breach is Natalie Gramer, a senior in MSU Denver’s Aviation and Aerospace Science Professional Flight Officer Concentration Program who has dreamed of being a pilot since she was a child.
“I’ve wanted to fly for Delta since I was 12 years old,” said Gramer, whose father retired from the carrier last December.
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MSU Denver recently became an accredited school for the Part 141 Restricted Airline Transport Pilot license. Under that license, students can apply for FAA Part 121 pilot jobs — including those with major and regional carriers — after they complete 1,000 hours of flight time instead of the 1,500 hours that have been required since 2013.
While some industry executives have petitioned the U.S. government to allow pilots to fly with 750 hours of flight time, Gramer doesn’t foresee a shorter runway to starting her career. She thinks she’ll have more security in obtaining a flying position after graduation with more training hours under her belt.
“Regional carriers are especially struggling to find qualified pilots,” said Kuhlmann, a retired commercial pilot himself. “This is forcing them to increase their base salary and lobby for fewer flight hours to be certified as a pilot.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 13% increase in pilot jobs by 2030, compared with 8% for all other occupations. Some of the major carriers, including Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines, have each announced openings for 1,000 pilots or more.
Other carriers, such as JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines, have trimmed capacity, and SkyWest has announced plans to drop service to 29 smaller cities because of staffing problems.
While service reductions are likely to isolate smaller U.S. cities, they could also create an opening for more competition in the form of smaller airlines.
“Annually, MSU Denver graduates 80-100 students from the Professional Flight Officer Concentration Program,” Kuhlmann said, adding that collaboration with airlines, which reach out to K-12 students, remains an important step toward growing the future pilot work force.
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Still, one of the biggest hurdles to bringing in new pilots remains the cost of flight training.
“To become a commercial pilot requires 1,500 hours of flight time,” Gramer said. “At $120 to $180 an hour, plus instructor costs and equipment,” she said, “it’s upward of $100,000 just to become a pilot.”
Not to be deterred, Kuhlmann said salaries for wide-body captains at major airlines can exceed $350,000 a year, even if getting qualified takes years.
“While it is still a substantial commitment both in time and financially, the fact is it has always paid off to have a pilot’s license in the long run,” Kuhlmann said. “When you look at what you make throughout a career and what you paid for education and flight training, the investment is well worth it.”