Air Transport World

Where have all the pilots gone? Regional airlines scramble to fill their cockpits.(TRAINING)

REGIONAL CARRIERS LONG HAVE been the entry point for a career as an airline pilot in the US. But there have been some noticeable, and perhaps unexpected, changes over the past year. There are fewer pilot applicants, attrition rates are up and carriers now are recruiting experienced flight instructors aggressively to staff their cockpits--a step that could have serious repercussions down the road.

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Industry experts say they expect this trend to continue, at least through the next 2-4 years, while at the same time they are projecting the need for as many as 120,000 new pilots in the US by 2017. "There is going to be a shortage," says Kit Darby, head of Atlanta-based Air Inc., an employment resource firm for pilots and employers. "Everyone will be picking on the same empty pool. Senior management of the airlines is just starting to realize this problem."

The problem extends far beyond regional airlines, according to Alteon VP Marketing Marsha Bell, noting that growth outside the US from Asia and India is placing even more pressure on the pool of licensed pilots. Alteon is a training division of Boeing. "If the world fleet doubles over the next 20 years, the population of pilots will have to double. We are experiencing the increase in that demand curve."

Earlier this year, Pinnacle Airlines experienced an attrition rate of 25%, with as many as 10-20 pilots leaving each month. "We were in a pretty difficult situation," VP Phil Reed tells ATW. "We had an enhanced demand for production under our flying agreement with Northwest Airlines. We had a great deal of difficulty keeping our schedule active." The bottom line for Pinnacle: It had to reduce its flying, which resulted in a $1.3 million payment to NWA.

Pilot hiring since has stabilized and the carrier has established partnerships with three flight schools willing to develop curricula based on some of its specific needs, Reed says. "It has been an outstanding mechanism for us," he adds. "We are not just attracting candidates but candidates who will successfully complete our program and pass FAR 121 flight requirements. …

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