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As pilots retire, who will fly our planes?

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 15, 2016

CINCINNATI -- A shortage of pilots is reaching down from airlines to flight schools, leaving many industry professionals questioning who will step in to fill the cockpits.

With an aging population of airline captains — a career with a mandatory retirement age of 65 — and fewer people pursuing aviation careers, replacing retiring pilots is challenging. Adding airlines’ projected growth plans to the mix, the International Civil Aviation Organization predicts a shortfall of 8,146 pilots by the year 2030.

“They (airlines) have growth plans, and they’re struggling to see how they’re going to replace pilots and populate their growth,” said John Fanselow, chief flight instructor for Lunken Flight Training Center.

When aspiring pilots set a course for a career, they often are drawn to the idea of flying for an airline. Whether the appeal is in the potential six-figure salary or traveling to other parts of the country or the world, the lifestyle and average starting salary for new pilots with regional airlines can be a deterrent.

“It’s a brutal lifestyle, and you don’t get paid very well for it,” Fanselow said.

The median salary for a large-jet airline captain is $123,955, according to Salary.com. Yet, for a first officer in his or her first year, the salary can be as low as $25,000.

“It’s like any profession,” said Tim Spitzig, chief flight instructor for Cincinnati Flight Training. “You start out on a one-year probation period for airlines. They might start you at $25,000 to $30,000, but after a year, it’ll double.”

After six or seven years, pilots can make around $70,000 to $100,000, he said. Even then, factors like the size of the aircraft play a role in determining a pilot’s wages.

“The highest-paying jobs are the biggest, heaviest aircraft, and those are the guys that have been there the longest,” Spitzig said.

Despite the promise of salary increases, the low starting wages and the time commitment pose too much of a struggle for many would-be pilots.

“It’s those starting people at the bottom of the seniority list where life is hard, and a lot of people feel it’s not worth doing,” Fanselow said.

Low starting wages aren’t the only prohibitive factor in pursuing a career as an airline pilot. Acquiring the certification and flying hours to work for an airline is costly and time-consuming. While some financing options are available, not everyone is eligible, and for those who are, the money must be repaid with interest.

“You’ve got $50,000 invested before you can even make a dime,” said Sharon McGee, academy president for Flamingo Air.

“It’s a very long and arduous process,” she said.

Due to stricter requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration, the process to become a professional pilot recently became even longer than in the past.

Pilots previously needed 250 flying hours and a commercial pilot certificate to work as a first officer for an airline. However, the FAA ruled in 2013 that airline co-pilots must have 1,500 flying hours and hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.

“Pilots were getting hired with 250 hours just a few years ago, which is a little more reasonable cost and time-wise,” Spitzig said.

While it can take as little as five to eight years, it takes many people 10 to 12 years to become an airline pilot, McGee said.

Many certified commercial pilots become flight instructors to build their experience and acquire the 1,500 hours needed to work for an airline. When an instructor leaves a flight school in favor of an airline, that leaves a position to be filled.

The struggle with vacant positions isn’t unique to flight schools.

“The big airlines are dipping down and pulling pilots out of regional and charter airlines,” said David MacDonald, president and chief executive officer of Flamingo Air.

With flight schools offering a variety of training options — from recreational to professional flying and even drone operation — not all who learn to fly will go on to be pilots. Yet, flight school instructors and executives are doing their part to encourage interest in flying.

“We encourage all kinds of people to learn to fly,” Fanselow said.

Keeping things fun is part of the equation, too, MacDonald said.

“We’re professional… but we try to make it enjoyable and fun,” he said.

Still, much of the responsibility for meeting the airlines’ needs rests on the airlines, McGee said.

“I think the big key to all of this is raising the wages of the pilots,” she said.

Raising pilots’ wages would lead to an increase in ticket prices, creating a “juggling act” to keep both employees and customers happy.

“The problem is complex, and the answers are complex,” McGee said. “There’s just no simple solution.”