Boeing Co. estimates that within the next 20 years the world will need more than a half-million pilots, but the aviation industry is seeing a shortage of qualified candidates.
In 2013, new federal rules went into place that required airline captains to fly hundreds more hours before being able to fly a commercially. The idea was to increase safety, but industry experts say it’s hampering their ability to find pilots.
The skies around McCarran International Airport illustrate the demand for flights remains strong.
“The industry is growing, not just here but worldwide,” said Dr. Juan Merkt of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
As that growth continues, one resource is shrinking: pilots. There aren’t enough to meet demand, and that means a loss of service.
‘The airlines are going to start parking airplanes because they don’t have pilots to fly them, and they’re going to stop service to smaller cities,” Merkt said.
Jeff Mulder, chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives, agrees.
“There isn’t enough of a flow in to the workforce pipeline,” Mulder said.
Merkt says he believes federal regulations have set the bar for pilots sky high. Today, they are required to fly 1,500 hours before being eligible to fly commercially.
One reason for the paucity of candidates: Starting salaries are low, minimum-wage jobs at around $20,000 a year.
“We don’t do it for the money; you have to love what you do, and we love aviation,” said Henderson resident OJ Barakat, a recent graduate of Embry-Riddle. “That’s why we do it.”
Barakat is transitioning to be a flight instructor at the university. He has logged about 230 flight hours but needs an additional 700 to fly commercially.
Flight hour requirements are lower for students of four-year aviation schools like Embry-Riddle or those with military service.
“I wanted to fly as long as I can remember,” Barakat said. “My mom can tell you stories about how I was a little kid and all I wanted to do was fly airplanes”
He knows starting his career means he’ll be living in a small apartment with roommates but as he has said, for him it’s not about the money.
Dr. Merkt said many of the students at the school are like Barakat – men and women who have a passion for flying, not the money … at least to begin with. Pilots for major airlines can easily make well in six-figure salaries.
Still, Merkt admitted they have to do better at attracting potential pilots because getting to the cockpit is expensive.
School and training costs are very high. Merkt said the industry needs to offer whatever help it can to potential pilots.
“They need to get involved with universities like Embry-Riddle and come up with solutions to alleviate part of the cost,” Merkt said.
Time in a flight simulator comes with a hefty price tag. For Barakat, it’s about $100 an hour.
As the industry struggles to find and train pilots, those who are already qualified now face mandatory retirement at age 65.
Mulder says a wave of retirements is adding to the shortage in the sky.
“We’re still going to see the impacts for several years until we can catch up and, really, it’s going to take quite a recruiting effort,” Mulder said.
As big airlines hire more, the pool of pilots for smaller regional airlines is sucked dry. Mulder says he feels Congress needs to rethink flight-hour mandates.
“It’s something that they need to go back and take a look at again because it’s causing quite a bit of damage to air transportation in this country,” Mulder said.
Mulder said it may be years before things are corrected.
He said recently the smaller airlines are doing what they can to offer better pay in the form of signing bonuses for incoming pilots.
Ultimately, a pilot shortage means empty cockpits and fewer flights.
“I’m afraid over the next couple years we’re going to continue to see cuts until we can get more people in the pipeline to fly airplanes again,” Mulder said.
At McCarran, pilot shortages have not impacted service. In fact, more flights are being added. The shortages are felt more at smaller airports …for now.