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Pilot shortage in Colorado and U.S. looms as current flyers are aging out and trainees face steep costs

Denver Post logo Denver Post 10/6/2019 Judith Kohler
a small airplane sitting on top of a runway: Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team checks the fuel for quality and quantity before flying touch and goes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield on Sept. 25, 2019. © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team checks the fuel for quality and quantity before flying touch and goes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield on Sept. 25, 2019.

An aging workforce, steeper minimum requirements for flight training and the accompanying higher costs are combining to make it difficult to address fears of a looming pilot shortage nationwide amid forecasts of surging customer demand.

As airlines lose pilots who are aged out of the system, the bench of waiting replacements is not deep enough to keep up. And it will be an uphill climb for the industry to staff cockpits as more than 200,000 new pilots will be needed in North America alone over the next two decades.

Regional airports in Colorado and across the country, where rookie flyers typically cut their teeth, are already feeling the pinch as the competition for new pilots intensifies.

And it’s not like being a pilot is without appeal: There should be plenty of jobs on the horizon, and the pay is great. That’s if pilots in training can afford the studies and time in the air.

“Right now the future is very, very rosy in all aspects,” Metropolitan State University of Denver professor Kevin Kuhlmann told hundreds of students at a recent symposium.

The industry’s economic benefits globally are $2.7 trillion, with $1.5 trillion of those in the U.S. alone, said Kuhlmann, during the session at the United Airlines Flight Training Center in Denver.

a man sitting at a desk and using a laptop computer: Joe Amon, The Denver Post Prof. Matt Fess works with seniors Maya Kottwitz, 22, and Harry McGill, 24, trying to figure the rate of climb of a twin-engine Piper Seminole aircraft with one engine in the simulator as they verify performance charts at the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at the Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 26, 2019. © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Joe Amon, The Denver Post Prof. Matt Fess works with seniors Maya Kottwitz, 22, and Harry McGill, 24, trying to figure the rate of climb of a twin-engine Piper Seminole aircraft with one engine in the simulator as they verify performance charts at the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at the Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 26, 2019.

The demand for more pilots and other aviation workers has translated into higher salaries and helped explain the rows of tables of aviation business people in the hallway outside the auditorium where the students were gathered.

“Everybody out in the hallway is a cog in the wheel trying to address those shortage problems, and you’re a part of that,” said Kuhlmann, associate chair of MSU’s aviation and aerospace department. “You’re looking at a career that will provide $6 million to $10 million in just salary. It hurts at the beginning, but it gets better.”

The hurt, the darker side of “rosy,” has to do with the cost of a four-year degree and the hours of training required to make it to the cockpit. The hours required for a new pilot pursuing an airline transport pilot certificate, needed to fly major and regional airlines and cargo planes, have tripled.

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The stepped-up requirement took effect in 2013 and applies to first officers, or co-pilots. It boosted the required minimum number of hours in the air to 1,500 from 250 for a commercial license. Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to increase the hours after the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a regional carrier near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.

The mandate came as the industry was already dealing with the exit of baby boom-era pilots and higher rates of air travel, Kuhlmann said. The military has faced its own issues with filling positions because of previous force reductions and Air Force base closures, he added.

“In the ’80s, most of the pilots being hired were from the military, maybe 25 percent from the civilian side. It’s totally reversed now,” said Kuhlmann, who was an aircraft commander and instructor pilot in the Air Force.

The steeper flight requirements and ongoing retirements of baby boomers are occurring as customer demand is going up. Passenger numbers worldwide could double to 8.2 billion by 2037, according to the International Air Transport Association, an industry organization. To meet the demands, a 2019 report by Boeing says 804,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide over the next 20 years. In North America, that number is 212,000.

There are 108,802 active pilots with airline transport pilot certificates, according to the FAA.

Like other airlines, United is keeping an eye on pending retirements. United, one of the country’s three legacy carriers, says 411 of its pilots will retire this year and 420 will retire next year. The total is expected to gradually climb each year and it will reach 740 in 2028.

The FAA’s mandatory retirement age for pilots is 65.

“The FAA continues to hear concerns from various segments of the aviation community on real and potential issues with pilot and mechanic supply,” the agency said in an email. “With strong support from Congress, the FAA is now working with a diverse range of stakeholders on ways to ensure the continued and long-range health and safety of the aviation industry.”

In September 2018, the FAA and Department of Transportation hosted a symposium to explore the scope of the problem and possible solutions. Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell told the group that the number of commercial pilots holding active certificates had decreased 27% in the past decade.

Analysis by the Regional Airline Association, which used federal figures, found about half of today’s commercial pilots must retire within the next 15 years and almost 15% must retire within five years.

“We have seen renewed interest in the career path and an uptick in new pilots entering the system. Unfortunately, there are still too few pilots entering the pipeline to keep pace with those retiring,” Faye Malarkey Black, the association’s CEO and president, said in an email.

a group of people looking at a computer screen: Joe Amon, The Denver Post Seniors Jack Moore (left) and Cam Ingalls test the rate of climb of a twin-engine Piper Seminole aircraft with one engine in the simulator as they verify performance charts at the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 26, 2019. © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Joe Amon, The Denver Post Seniors Jack Moore (left) and Cam Ingalls test the rate of climb of a twin-engine Piper Seminole aircraft with one engine in the simulator as they verify performance charts at the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 26, 2019.

Regional carriers and the airports they serve have been among the first to feel the squeeze, aviation experts say. An estimated 1,600 cargo and passenger slots will go unfilled in the U.S. by 2020, the industry publication Aviation Voice reported in June.

Forty-one percent of the scheduled passenger departures are operated by regional airlines, according to the Regional Airline Association.

“It’s a very dire problem in the sense that regional air service, and particularly rural air service, has suffered greatly,” said Jeff Forrest, chairman of MSU’s aviation and aerospace department.

The pipeline of pilots feeding into the major carriers is in good shape right now, Forrest said. But it’s a different matter for regional and smaller air services.

“The minute they get a pilot, they can’t keep them. Or the minute they get a pilot, they can’t afford to pay the salary they need,” Forrest said.

A 2018 survey of the state’s commercial airports found that a shortage of pilots is affecting air service, said David Ulane, director of the Director of the Colorado Division of Aeronautics. Eight of the 10 airports that responded to the question said airlines have told them that changes in service were because of a pilot shortage. The fallout has included reduced reliability and timeliness and the community’s loss of faith in the air service, the airports reported.

“Most of those airports are served by smaller regional airlines who have really been impacted by the pilot shortage. Their pilots have been recruited to go up to the major airlines like United and Southwest and American,” Ulane said. “I know sometimes for some of those smaller communities, they’ve not had as many flights as they would like, and when you don’t have as many flights, the price tends to go up.”

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At this point, United has not been directly affected by the increasing need for new pilots, but its regional partners have, said Mike McCasky, the airline’s managing director of flight training.

“That’s where the challenge has manifested itself just recently, in that the growth and the demand has been outpacing our ability to produce qualified pilots,” McCasky said.

a man standing in front of a car: Joe Amon, The Denver Post Sophomore work study lab assistant Josh Carrier, 19, works on maintaining the simulators in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 13, 2019. © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Joe Amon, The Denver Post Sophomore work study lab assistant Josh Carrier, 19, works on maintaining the simulators in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 13, 2019.

One of the ways the industry is tackling the challenge is to encourage pilots-in-waiting by providing a foot in the cockpit door while they’re still in school. United has teamed up with MSU and the University of North Dakota to offer a pathway to eventually flying for the airline.

Students who have completed a couple of semesters of aviation or aerospace training and have at least a 3.0 grade-point average can interview with United. Successful candidates then have what McCasky calls a conditional job offer.

One condition is working for one of United’s regional partners, where people will put in the flying time to earn the airline transport pilot certificate, meet other requirements and in a few years move into a slot at United. McCasky said people typically will have accumulated between 4,000 and 5,000 hours of flying by the time they join United.

Kuhlmann said MSU was the first university to sign an agreement giving qualified students a head start with a legacy carrier. A legacy carrier is typically defined as an airline that had established interstate routes before airlines were deregulated in 1978.

a group of people sitting at a table: Joe Amon, The Denver Post Autumn Kniffin (center), 20, manager of the MSU Denver Precision Flight Team talks with other aviation students in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 13, 2019. © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Joe Amon, The Denver Post Autumn Kniffin (center), 20, manager of the MSU Denver Precision Flight Team talks with other aviation students in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Sept. 13, 2019.

Word about the potential of plentiful, good-paying jobs in aviation seems to be getting around, at least at MSU. The aviation department has a total enrollment of 552 students this fall, and 284 of those are in the professional flight program. That’s up from 220 in the fall of 2018 and a total of 135 in the fall of 2017. This fall, 58 of the students are women, compared with just 21 two years ago.

Bill Jones, 20, a second-semester junior at MSU, is one of those excited about the opportunities. He wants to earn his flight instructor rating before applying because he thinks that will improve his chances of getting into the program. Jones is a fourth-generation pilot who flew solo before he could drive a car by himself.

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“Getting dropped off at the airport to go and fly and having to call Mom to come pick me up was a little strange,” Jones said.

And he hasn’t let up. Jones flies when he can to build up his hours, carries a full load of classes and has a full-time job at Centennial Airport. Even with scholarships helping defray some of his costs, Jones figures he will end up paying about $100,000 for tuition and flight training.

But Jones said it will be “100 percent worth it.” He said the university’s partnerships with airlines, including Envoy Air, a subsidiary of American Airlines, help motivate students who are juggling classes, work and pursuing their air transport pilot certificate.

“That ATP rating is kind of the gold ticket,” Jones said of the certificate. “You get on with a regional (airline) and once you’ve got your hours, unless you’ve done something wrong, chances are you’re going to get on with a legacy carrier. At that point, the sky’s the limit.”

Getting to that point can be a struggle, Kuhlmann concedes. The professor speaks passionately about MSU being more economical than comparable programs at other universities. He said tuition and flight training, which students line up themselves, can total $90,000 to $130,000, far lower than the $200,000-plus total at some schools.

That’s still a big expense, Kuhlmann acknowledged. The same federal rule on the number of hours needed by co-pilots that has created a crunch for regional airports is also driving up the time and money required from students.

  • a fighter jet sitting on top of a runway: Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ... © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ...

    Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Preparing for an upcoming precision competition, Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team does a pre-flight walk around before flying touch and goes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado on Sept. 25, 2019.

  • a man standing in front of a car: Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ... © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ...

    Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Preparing for an upcoming precision competition, Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team working down the pre flight check list before flying touch and goes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado on Sept. 25, 2019.

  • a screen shot of a computer: Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ... © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ...

    Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Preparing for an upcoming precision competition, Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team setting the Garmin G1000 integrated flight instrument system before flying touch and goes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado on Sept. 25, 2019.

  • a view of a laptop: Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ... © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ...

    Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Preparing for an upcoming precision competition, Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team heads toward his sweet line on the runway during a power off touch and go at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado on Sept. 25, 2019.

  • Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ... © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Preparing for an upcoming precision competition ...

    Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Preparing for an upcoming precision competition, Matthew Cape, 25, Captain of the MSU Denver precision flight team flies towards the sun during touch and goes at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado on Sept. 25, 2019.

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“It is daunting, but there is so much promise,” said Matt Cape, 25, a senior and captain of the MSU Precision Flight Team.

Cape was studying computer science when he decided he couldn’t “sit in front of a desk for very long.” Aviation was a childhood passion of his, but he assumed that his less-than-perfect eyesight meant he couldn’t be a commercial pilot. He learned that wasn’t true and now wants to fly for a major carrier.

Black, of the Regional Airline Association, said federal policy changes are needed to ensure that students at MSU and elsewhere who want to become pilots have the opportunity. A big problem is that student loans are capped short of what it really costs to cover tuition and flight training, she said.

“Those with means turn to their parents, and those parents with appropriate credit scores may turn to the private market for loans. Those without means are shut out,” Black said.

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