PHILADELPHIA – A storm is brewing in the cockpit of U.S. airlines: a pilot shortage.
Thousands of pilots are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 65, just as it is becoming harder to be a commercial airline pilot.
New federal pilot-rest rules and tougher qualification standards requiring new pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience – up from 250 – have come at the same time that throngs of senior pilots will be retiring.
The new mandates were implemented in the past six months, in response to the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009, that killed all 49 aboard the plane and one man on the ground.
National Transportation Safety Board hearings focused on whether the plane’s two pilots were properly trained and whether factors such as fatigue may have affected their performance.
Although job prospects for commercial pilots are bright and regional airlines are scooping up newly minted aviators with signing bonuses, fewer young people are choosing aviation careers.
The reason: the cost of training and low entry-level pay, $20,000 to $25,000 a year.
New Jersey native Christopher Machado, 20, a junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., has wanted to be a pilot since he was a boy, watching the planes overhead at the Newark, N.J., airport, not far from his home.
At 17, he had a private pilot’s license – before he drove a car alone. Machado said the cost of his education and flight training will be about $250,000 before he can sit in the first officer’s seat of a regional airline, where commercial pilots usually start to build experience.
Machado said he’s lucky that his parents support his dream and are paying for it. “I know a lot of people who would be pilots, but for the money.”
Peter Doroba, 35, a captain for Spirit Airlines, grew up in Manayunk, N.J., and after high school worked as an automobile technician while attending Montgomery County Community College at night. Along the way, he earned a private pilot’s certificate.
He transferred to Embry-Riddle in Florida in his senior year, graduated and stayed on as a fight instructor and then a flight team manager, before being hired by Spirit in 2008.
Doroba said he finished college with $105,000 in loan debt – more than the mortgage on his house. “For years, people have talked about pilot shortages. I hope this one is real,” he said. “They are not going to have any pilots if they keep the wages down at poverty levels.”
In 2012, Boeing projected that 498,000 new commercial pilots would be needed in the next two decades.
“There is a pilot shortage. We’re just starting to see the effects,” said Capt. James Ray, spokesman for the US Airline Pilots Association, which represents US Airways pilots.
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