Ask the pilot

Facing a serious pilot shortage, airlines are hiring crew members with remarkably little experience. What does this mean for safety?

By Patrick Smith

Published December 7, 2007 11:27AM (EST)

The first airline I worked for was a small regional carrier named Northeast Express -- an affiliate of Northwest that flew under the "Airlink" banner. When I was hired, in the summer of 1990, my logbook contained just over 1,500 total flight hours. In addition to various instrument, multiengine and instructor ratings, I had a newly minted airline transport pilot certificate as well. I had been a flight instructor for the better part of four years, slowly building time in Cessnas, Pipers and other light, single-engine aircraft.

Such a résumé was, at the time, borderline competitive for an airline position. Thus I was equally thrilled and lucky when Northeast Express gave me the nod. My first assignment was hardly anything special -- first officer (copilot) on the Beech-99, an unpressurized 15-seater. Starting pay was about $850 per month.

Or, I think of my friend Mike, who was hired by the same company shortly thereafter. It was the best job he could find after retiring from the Navy, where he'd flown fighters. Like many airlines at the time, ours was so overwhelmed with eager applicants that it began charging new hires for the cost of their own training. Mike's out-of-pocket expenditure totaled more than $10,000. Had he declined, there were a thousand others in line behind him.

That was then. Those pay-for-training schemes are mostly gone now, as carriers struggle to fill positions amid the most serious pilot shortage since the 1960s.

Allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine, an aspiring airline pilot whom we'll call Kevin. About two weeks ago Kevin was hired by a US Airways Express affiliate. Later this month he'll begin first-officer training on a highly sophisticated 50-seater. Kevin, who is 29, has a grand total of 300 hours in his logbook. Three hundred. Thinking back to the mid-1980s, to the point when I had 300 hours, the prospect of applying to an airline -- any airline -- was unfathomable.

The expression "pilot shortage" is somewhat incorrect. There are plenty of résumés pouring into the recruitment offices, believe me. However, there is indeed a shortage of applicants who possess the level of qualifications traditionally sought after. And at least in North America, this crisis, for lack of a better term, exists almost exclusively at the regional level -- a problem not for United, American, Northwest et al., but for their numerous code-share partners and subsidiaries. In fact there are thousands of major airline pilots still on the street, yet to be recalled from furlough (more than 2,200 from American Airlines alone). As this column has explored in recent weeks, record numbers of Americans are traveling by air, but they are doing so in smaller planes. The use of regional jets (RJs), in particular, which carry anywhere from 35 to 70 passengers, has increased nearly 200 percent in the past five years, creating thousands of entry-level jobs.

To fill those slots, airlines have been steadily reducing their minimum requirements, and suddenly, as Kevin can attest, it's not uncommon to be hired with a few hundred hours and a smidgen of multiengine time into the copilot seat of a $20 million aircraft.

At what point this trend will bottom out is impossible to tell. The capacity reductions announced by airlines earlier this week may bring some regional downsizing. Similarly, carriers are figuring out that one of the easiest ways to reduce delays and congestion is to scale back RJ flying and consolidate with larger planes.

Either way, if it seems the applicant pool is not being adequately replenished, we need look no further than the $20,000 or less opening salary offered by most regional airlines. In decades past, flying for a regional was considered a temporary apprenticeship, a steppingstone before moving on to a more rewarding career at a major airline. That progression, never a sure thing, is today even more of a gamble. And even if things work out, major airline pay scales are nothing like they used to be. Increasingly, a position at a regional is looked upon not so much as a means to an end, but as a career in and of itself. And not a very profitable one. Although a senior RJ captain can earn close to six figures, the prospect of investing tens of thousands of dollars for the necessary licenses, only to languish for several years earning poverty-level wages, has dissuaded many from a career in aviation. (That these airlines have not substantially increased wages to attract more experienced candidates shows they are not yet as desperate as the term "pilot shortage" might imply.)

On the other hand, candidates are able to enter the industry with far fewer hours upfront, meaning less expense and, on average, an earlier jump on things. There are plenty of 22-year-olds out there with 300 or 400 hours. Even at $20,000 to start, there are worse jobs for a young guy or gal just out of school. Assuming a quick upgrade to captain, he or she could be earning upward of $50,000 well before age 30.

The obvious question: Is this a safety issue?

Not necessarily. An applicant with 1,500 flight hours may or may not be more skilled than one with 400 hours. I wouldn't call experience overrated, exactly, but it's something like that. One of the reasons that airlines demanded a high total of flight hours was simply because they could; it was a way of culling the herd. The quality of training is what's crucial, not the raw numbers of hours in a candidate's logbook. From a passenger's point of view, you don't want the most experienced crew, you want the best trained crew.

I recently spoke with a senior training captain at one of the country's largest regional airlines. "Our typical trainee is far less experienced than what we've seen years past," says the captain, who asks that his name not be used. "Much of the training syllabus had to be restructured to ensure these pilots are up to par."

"Perhaps that sounds ominous to the layperson," he adds, "but on the whole I've been very pleased with the caliber of our new hires -- especially those coming from the better aviation colleges and academies, like Embry-Riddle and FlightSafety. Once hired, everybody goes through the same classroom and simulator instruction, and is held to the same standard. If you can't make the grade, you don't stay."

The final step in training is something called IOE, or initial operating experience, during which a new first officer flies in revenue operations under the watch of a designated check pilot. Minimum IOE hours are stipulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, tailored to each carrier and aircraft type. "We're required to give 25 hours of IOE," says the captain. "Lately, we've been extending it to as many as 50 hours. Sometimes more."

In short, although recruitment minimums have been loosened, training standards have not. Still, is there not some obvious, if intangible, value to experience? Are there not certain things that cannot be taught in the simulator, or on the fly, as it were? "Absolutely," agrees the captain. "But remember, in an airline environment, you fly as part of a team. The first officer might not have deep pockets, so to speak, from which to draw, but he is not alone in the cockpit. We do not pair new captains together with new first officers, so at least one crew member is relatively senior. On top of that, every flight is monitored by its dispatcher and beholden to the FAR regulations [Federal Aviation Regulations]."

Overseas, meanwhile, the situation is somewhat different. Across much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, civil aviation has been growing exponentially, and homegrown pilots aren't always easy to find. In Kenya, for example, the national airline had hoped to hire 330 pilots during 2007. In a nation with only 2,000 licensed pilots total, it was able to hire only 300. Last May, a Kenya Airways 737 crashed after takeoff in Cameroon, killing all 114 passengers and crew. While the accident remains under investigation, some have speculated that the performance of the first officer, who was young and very inexperienced, may have played a role.

Many carriers in these regions have heretofore sought out expatriate crew members who arrive already qualified on particular types of aircraft, drawing in part from the pool of crew members laid off from the U.S. majors. Now that most furloughees have been recalled, myself included (at one point more than 10,000 of us had been laid off), those pilots are harder to find. No longer able to rely on imported, more or less pre-trained labor, these companies are being forced to hire locally, while developing and investing in their own training departments.

In Africa the problem is intensified: Not only are pilots rare to start with, but those who exist often seek employment elsewhere. At a meeting last spring, the secretary-general of the African Airlines Association, a trade group based in Ghana, said that safety remains a primary threat to the viability of the continent's airlines, noting that carriers in Asia and the Gulf region routinely poach pilots, cabin crew and management staff from Africa. "Brain drain is seriously depleting our industry of its most experienced and qualified human resources," he said, arguing for "vigorous governmental, political and diplomatic interventions that can help stem the hemorrhage."

In the United States, about 50 percent of all airline pilots receive their initial training in the military. The other half train independently as civilians, earning one license and rating at a time. The process is extremely expensive and time-consuming, and there are no guarantees for employment. In many other nations, even the largest carriers rely on so-called ab initio programs, where candidates are selected upfront, with little or no flight time, and trained to the company's standards. You are, in effect, an airline pilot from Day One, graduating directly to large jet aircraft. With jobs increasingly hard to fill, you can expect overseas ab initio programs to become more popular.

This makes some people, including me, a little nervous. The idea of a 300-hour pilot at the controls of an RJ or turboprop is one thing. The idea of a 300-hour pilot at the controls of a 777 or A340 is something else. One can make the argument that it's "easier" to fly a wide-body than a regional plane, and surely the operational environment at the regional airlines is very demanding. But having done both, I assure you that flying a large jetliner is, to put it one way, a considerably more serious job, and one in which those "deep pockets" are eminently valuable.

The benefits of experience are impossible to quantify, and are to some degree overemphasized, but they do exist. Is it unsafe to have a low-time pilot at the controls? No. Is it less safe? Probably. Those are entirely different things, but nevertheless there's a serious issue at hand. Globally, in spite of rapid growth, the past several years have been the safest in the modern history of commercial flying. It is training, more than any single factor, that accounts for this. But if this trend is to continue, the airlines, together with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the FAA and the rest of the world's aviation overseers, need to establish and uphold strict, effective protocols.

Note from the author:

Because of a server problem, several dozen reader-submitted e-mails were lost over the past two weeks. I try to answer as many letters as possible. If you did not receive a reply, feel free to resend any questions.

-- P.S.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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