Pilot Shortage and Legislation Threaten Aviation Safety

By now it is pretty much a guarantee that the 1500 hour rule is going to go into effect in 2013. At this point it would be highly unlikely that the FAA is going to reverse or change their decision.  December 13, 2012 is also coming. Five years ago on December 13th the FAA decided to extend the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots to age 65. That means that the wave of mandatory retirements is about to begin.  

Those likely to first feel those retirements and the effects of the shortage are the regional careers. The typical path for a pilot is to get hired as a first officer at a regional airline, get promoted to captain and then get hired by a mainline carrier. As the most seasoned pilots begin to retire from the larger airlines, those carriers will begin hiring pilots from the regional airlines, which in turn will have to go out and find new talent to fill the void. Problem being, their will not be a large pool of new pilots that meet all of the qualifications mandated by the FAA (1500 hours of flight time).  

The end goal of the new regulation is to increase aviation safety, however in order to get there, safety will be compromised. Think of it as the perfect storm. The rising global demand for pilots, combined with the anticipated wave of pilot retirements and tougher qualification standards for new pilots, are going to collide all at the same time creating a massive void. John Allen, the Federal Aviation Administration’s director of flight services acknowledged this through his comments to The Associated Press. 

He said he is fearful that if there is a shortage, airlines will hire pilots who are technically qualified but do not have the “right stuff.”  

“If the industry is stretched pretty thin… that can result in someone getting into the system that maybe isn’t really the right person to be a pilot. Not everybody is supposed to be a pilot,” stated Allen.  

The search for qualified pilots is going to lead to the hiring of more “less” qualified pilots. Kit Darby, a US-based aviation consultant has the same fears. “I would expect that more experience or more training will initially lower the safety margins until the system can adjust to new requirements.” 

In defense of the airlines, some have already started addressing these issues by creating programs with other organizations across the supply chain. JetBlue, Cape Air, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of North Dakota teamed up to create The Gateway Program, which is essentially a pilot feeder program. It provides students with a defined seven year path, starting on day one with schooling at UND or ERAU and ending on day 2,555 with an interview at JetBlue. ERAU and UND provide pilots to Cape Air who then hires them to fly their turboprop aircraft, allowing the pilots to improve their skills and build up hours. Then Cape Air passes them along to JetBlue who will interview and hopefully hire them to command the larger jets.  

What this program has done is provide a very well defined path for a student to achieve their goal of becoming a commercial pilot. To this day, that has never really been done. With this type of program, everyone in the supply chain benefits. On the one end the student is guaranteed an interview with JetBlue upon completion of the program and JetBlue is guaranteed pilots that meet FAA standards.  In between you have Cape Air who is benefitting because they now have higher quality pilots than they have had in the past while the Universities now have a phenomenal recruiting tool.  

According to Dave Bushy, Cape Air’s chief operating officer, “The major carriers have got to become responsible for the pilot feed.” What better way than with programs like this?