Nebraska pilots weigh in on cause of pilot shortage

Recent changes in requirements for co-pilots are impacting air travel in Nebraska. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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August 6, 2014 - 6:30am

If you’re looking to catch a flight out of some of Nebraska’s smaller airports, there’s a good chance your flight could be cancelled. While many agree a pilot shortage is to blame for the cancellations, the cause of the shortage is up for debate.


In 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo, New York. 50 people were killed. The National Transportation and Safety Board ruled it was the result of pilot error, and possible fatigue.

Reacting to that tragedy, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to tighten regulations for regional airlines, smaller carriers that account for about half of all air travel in the country.

The FAA increased required rest time for pilots and required additional training for co-pilots. Now, co-pilots need the same type of flight certification that captains have. It’s called an ATP, or Airline Transport Pilot Certification. It also means the minimum flight time for co-pilots went from 250 hours, to 1500.  If the co-pilot was in the military or went to an accredited aviation school, that 1500 hour minimum can be adjusted.

Even though he expects the pilot shortage will have an effect on flights out of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport near Grand Island at some point, airport director Mike Olson said CNRA is doing well at the moment. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Mike Olson is the director of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island. He said the new requirement is too stringent, and is preventing smaller airlines from hiring people who up until last August would have been qualified.

“I went to a conference two months ago where some regional airlines were there and they talked about the pilot shortage and how they can’t fill their classes with new pilots,” Olson said. “They’re only getting 2 to 4 or 6 or 8 pilots at a time, when they’re used to putting through classes of 30.”

Captain Ron Hanson is a Nebraska native flying for a regional airline in Virginia. He said the new training requirements for co-pilots are a non-issue.

Hanson said if anything is causing a pilot shortage, it’s pay. He said he knows plenty of people flying overseas, where emerging markets like China are paying top dollar for American-trained pilots.

“[Foreign airlines] offer so much more. A lot better pay, better benefits, tax incentives. Financially you look at this, and in a year or two, [the pilots’] college loans are wiped clean which is unheard of if they were to go to a regional here at the states,” Hanson explained.

Hanson isn’t alone in his view. The Air Line Pilots Association, one of the largest pilot unions in the country, agrees.

The above graph shows the breakdown of aviation jobs around the globe. (Image courtesy of Boeing)

The Air Line Pilots Association cites first year pay for beginning co-pilots as the primary reason why regional airlines can't find enough pilots to hire. Captain Clay Barnes of Lincoln said after he was promoted from co-pilot his salary doubled. (Image courtesy of Businessweek.com)

Entry-level pilots make on average about $20,000 a year. ALPA said if regional airlines simply paid their people more, there would be more people to hire.

“There’s still pilots out there that meet these requirements now,” Hanson said.

“During the whole rule making process, the airlines were highly involved, if not leading the way, with a lot of these regulations that were put into place, along with the pilot groups and other agencies," Hanson said.  "[Airlines] have had three years to prep for this, why all of the sudden [some] are not prepared for this, I’m not for sure why.”

Mike Olson, the director of the airport in Grand Island, said low pay for beginning pilots is nothing new. He said historically, the first year or two of a pilot’s career is similar to a paid internship. He said depending on certain outside economic factors, most co-pilots earn their ATP and get promoted to captain in a few years. Now, they’ll need an ATP just to get hired.

“The Air Line Pilots Association hasn’t helped the situation. Their only mission in life is to protect their pilots, and they don’t look at the big picture,” Olson said, “Quite honestly I’m disappointed in ALPA for not leading the charge to get this rule changed.”

Captain Clay Barnes is another Nebraskan flying for a regional carrier. He says whatever the reason for the shortage, there’s no disputing it exists.

“Yes, there is on paper, because right now we are not producing near enough pilots to replace the ones that are forecasted to retire," Barnes said.  "The production of pilots just via certification from the FAA records is down considerably.”

The FAA reports there were nearly 6,000 fewer student pilots last year than the year before, and almost 15 percent fewer than 10 years ago.

Barnes said while the new ATP requirement isn’t the reason for the pilot shortage, it’s not exactly helping.

“I think the ATP was sort of just the final nail in the coffin," Barnes said.  "There’s been a lot of trajectory towards this day and time for a while. I just think people didn’t really catch on to what was about to happen until maybe about two or three years ago when all the airlines started looking at their scheduled retirements and started thinking, ‘there’s not nearly enough to cover all of this.’”

After the governmental deregulation of airlines, the industry expanded rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. An abundance of military-trained pilots were ready to fill positions as new airlines sprung up around the country.

40 years later, those same people are now retiring, which means more co-pilots becoming pilots. According to Barnes, to replace those co-pilots, larger carriers typically look to smaller carriers for new hires.

“If you look at the entire regional airlines industry, that’s only 18,000 pilots to replace a number that is far bigger than that. So yes, there’s a shortage,” Barnes said.

Terry Gibbs is the director of the aviation school at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He said determining the cause of the pilot shortage really just depends on how you look at it.

“At the lower tier, at the entry-level or regional a lot of it is the ATP. At the higher level, not so much. So to point at any one factor and say this is the cause is simplistic. It really is,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said when new students come into the program he does his best to manage their expectations. He said he tells each student the first few years as a pilot aren’t always easy.

“Economically, it’s getting harder to swallow. It’s a wonderful career and the rewards are great, but it’s getting harder to justify that level of commitment,” Gibbs said.

While the debate around the pilot shortage continues, lawmakers are beginning to take notice of the airline industry once again.

Last week, Congressman Adrian Smith introduced the Small Airport Relief Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would make it easier for smaller airports to secure federal funding. Smith said those airports are threatened by the pilot shortage caused in part by the new federal regulations.

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