No Shortage Of Passengers, But Where Are The Pilots?

Published: Monday, July 4, 2016 - 1:12pm
Updated: Monday, July 4, 2016 - 1:14pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
King and Burright prepare for takeoff on a recent practice flight for the cross-county race.
Christina Estes
Alex Geller is working on his degree in aviation at Embry Riddle's campus in Prescott.

Airlines are predicting a record number of passengers this summer. More than 230 million people are expected to fill airports across the country. The increase comes at a time when some airlines are reporting a pilot shortage.

At a conference hosted earlier this year by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, several presentations focused on the latest technology. 

In the lobby, during a lunch break, Alex Geller talked dollars.

“It’s definitely not cheap,” he said of his four-year investment to earn a degree in aviation at Embry Riddle’s campus in Prescott. 

“Every time I have to apply for a loan or something to help out with tuition a little bit, it hurts,” he said,” But I always remind myself I want to do what so few have done.” 

It seems even fewer have their eyes on the skies. 

“Young people just can’t afford to do it,” said Brent Bowen, professor and dean of Embry Riddle’s College of Aviation. 

He said it can cost $150,000 to train to become a pilot. Graduates who want to fly for a major carrier must start at the regional airlines which service smaller markets and provide smaller pay -as little as $20,000 a year.

That’s one reason why Geller may take another route when he graduates this December.

“I’m actually looking towards going into cargo or the military,” he said. “A little better pay.” 

A 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found mixed evidence of a pilot shortage. Two studies showed an adequate supply of qualified pilots, but pointed out they may be working in other occupations, other countries or in the military. 

Bowen said the big airlines used to count on the military to train pilots that they could then hire, but that’s changed. 

“They’re paying bonuses, retention bonuses, 'Stay with us through retirement and you make as much as American Airlines,'”  Bowen said of the military.

The federal report also cited a study that said unless action is taken, the future pilot supply will be insufficient, largely due to costs. 

“The regional airlines, the major airlines, need to invest in making pilot training affordable,” Bowen said.

When regional carrier, Republic Airways, filed for bankruptcy protection last February, the CEO blamed a lack of pilots. Flights are being cancelled and service cut at smaller airports across the country and Bowen worries the same could happen at big airports as more pilots turn 65, that’s the federal mandatory retirement age.