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"Airlines trim standards amid shortage of pilots"



Sunday, August 27, 2000

Airlines trim standards amid shortage of pilots
By KATIE FAIRBANK
The Dallas (TX) Morning News


Airlines are waking up to a shortage of qualified pilots that has led to
flight cancellations, reduced schedules and changes in the way that carriers
hire.

The problem is fueled by a hiring boom now in its sixth year of
record-setting employment growth. About 18,000 pilots are expected to be
hired this year alone.

"Every year has been better than the last," said Kit Darby, president of AIR
Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in pilot career consulting.

The number of pilots flying the nation's big passenger and cargo jets grew
from 97,000 in 1988 to 134,612 in 1998, the last year for which figures are
available, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The economic boom is making it all possible. The good times mean that more
people can afford to fly more often, forcing carriers to buy more planes.
But airlines are having trouble finding the people to staff the cockpits.

United Airlines has canceled hundreds of flights in recent weeks, including
2,000 in October, because many of its pilots don't want the overtime - a
situation that the company attributes to contract negotiations and that
union leaders blame on poor airline planning. And within the last year,
three U.S. regional airlines were forced to reduce schedules because they
didn't have enough pilots.

There's no slowdown in sight.

The FAA projects that the number of U.S. airline passengers will grow from
665 million people last year to more than a billion people in 2011.

Complicating the airlines' recruitment efforts is a surge in retirements
among pilots who signed up when the carriers rapidly expanded at the dawn of
the jet age in the mid-1960s.

"What we're seeing right now is retirements are about half of the demand,"
Darby said.

There has also been a slowdown in military pilot training, a longtime source
of potential hires. Six years ago, 80 percent of the nation's new pilots had
been trained in the armed forces. That number has dropped to about 50
percent today.

So airlines have abolished some of the restrictions that once were used to
discourage applicants. Some examples:

Pilots once were banned from cockpit duty if they didn't have perfect
vision. Today, about 25 percent of new pilots wear glasses or contact
lenses - although the FAA requires that their vision can be corrected to
20/20.

Age is no longer the factor it once was. A decade ago, the average new pilot
was in his or her late 20s. Today, the average age is over 30. Height and
weight restrictions have also been liberalized.

"They're taller, shorter and fatter," Darby said. "The airlines have gone
from keeping the door closed to opening the door and letting them in."

United Airlines has eliminated its application fee. And Southwest Airlines
now accepts applications year-round; it used to limit applications to one or
two days a year.

"We're getting about the same number, but now it's a steady stream," said
Linda Burke Rutherford, a spokeswoman at the Dallas-based airline.

The demand for pilots also has a trickle-down effect. Regional airlines,
charter carriers and the military are watching their aviators leave in
droves for the name-brand airlines.

"Some of these smaller companies are losing a pilot a day. That's difficult
over time," Darby said. "When you lose 60 percent of your pilots in
turnover, that's a problem."

The smaller airlines also are loosening requirements for new pilots.

"All the carriers are becoming much more creative in their recruiting
practices," said Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline
Association.

A few years ago, regional carriers required that pilots have at least 1,500
total flying hours and 500 hours of experience with multiengine planes. Now,
most demand 1,000 to 1,200 total hours and 100 multiengine hours. (The FAA
requires just 250 hours of flight time to earn a commercial pilot's
license.)

"Some regional carriers have adjusted their hiring minimums to take into
account market conditions," McElroy said.

American Eagle, which plans to hire 600 before year's end, lowered its
minimum requirements this year to 1,000 hours of flight time, down from
1,500 hours. "The average hire still has about 1,800 hours," American Eagle
spokesman Mark Slitt said. "But it's a response as everybody industrywide is
competing for candidates."

The military, meanwhile, is worried about its ability to attract and keep
aviators.

Pentagon officials admit that they underestimated the need for military
pilots after the Cold War ended. But they have been surprised that so many
of their pilots have bailed out of the service in recent years.

The Air Force predicts a shortage of nearly 2,000 pilots by 2002. The Navy
and Coast Guard also are expecting shortfalls.

The Pentagon has responded to the crisis by offering re-enlistment bonuses
and increasing pay. Still, no relief is expected well into this decade.

"In the interim, we face one of the most serious pilot force challenges in
Air Force history," the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan,
recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Navy also has cut down the time it takes to train its fliers. And it's
considering a "fly-only" career path for pilots who don't want
administrative jobs.

Analysts say the changes are unlikely to help as long as the major airlines
are hiring at record rates.

"It's all due to the gross national product, the economy and profits at the
airlines," Darby said. "A recession could cool it off."

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