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Proposals would ease standards, raise retirement age to address pilot shortage

A student pilot and flight instructor prepare to take off on a training flight outside of Phoenix, AZ.
David Schaper/NPR
A student pilot and flight instructor prepare to take off on a training flight outside of Phoenix, AZ.

Air travelers just endured another weekend of widespread flight delays and cancellations. Airlines cancelled more than 5,100 flights that had been scheduled from Thursday, Aug. 4 through Monday, Aug. 8, and close to 30% of the flights that did take off were delayed.

It's something that's become all too common this summer, as airports have been busier than at any time since the pandemic began, but airlines struggle to meet the surge in air travel demand.

The airlines blame the chronic delays and cancellations, in part, on a shortage of staff, and especially of pilots, which gets magnified in times of bad weather or other operational problems.

The pilot shortage is also forcing airlines, especially regional carriers, to reduce the number of flights they offer, particularly to smaller cities.

United Airlines has ended service to 25 destinations since the pandemic began. American and Delta have dropped dozens of cities from their flight schedules, too.

Places like Twin Falls, Idaho; Mason City, Iowa; and Elko, Nev., are down to one flight a day. United's single daily flight to Mason City also stops in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and is that small city's only flight each day, too.

Even Chicago's O'Hare, one of the world's busiest airports, has nearly 25% fewer departures each day than it did in 2019, because of the sharp drop in the number of regional airline flights to smaller cities, according to the aviation data analytics firm OAG.

The Regional Airline Association says its member airlines, including SkyWest, Republic, Envoy, Endeavor, and Mesa, which fly regional routes on behalf of the big legacy carriers such as American Eagle, Delta Shuttle and United Express, are not cutting service to these smaller airports because they want to, but because they don't have enough pilots to staff the flights.

So to address the shortage, some in the industry and in Congress are calling for some big changes. Among them are raising the mandatory pilot retirement age from 65 to 67, and reducing the number of flight hours required before a pilot can be certified.

"We have a crisis when it comes to airline travel," Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said recently at his home state's Greenville-Spartanburg airport. "We have a pilot shortage and those who say we don't, well, they're just full of it."

"We're suffering because of this," Graham added. "Airlines have to make decisions, so when you have less pilots, you gotta pick what routes to fly, and regional airports like Greenville and throughout other smaller communities suffer the most."

With too few pilots to staff flights, airlines have had to park hundreds of airplanes.

"There are approximately 500 fewer regional aircraft operating today than at the end of 2019," says Drew Lemos of the Regional Airlines Association. "This represents a loss of a quarter of the regional fleet. Five-hundred parked aircraft equates to a deficiency of approximately 5,000 pilots."

Calls for raising the minimum retirement age

So to keep the industry from losing even more pilots, Graham is sponsoring legislation that would raise the mandatory airline pilot retirement age from 65 to 67, as long as they continue to meet the FAA's stringent medical qualifications to fly commercial aircraft.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that U.S. airlines will need to hire about 14,500 pilots each year over the next decade, but new pilot training and licensing is not keeping up with that demand.

And Graham and the RAA say in the next two years, 5,000 pilots will be forced out the industry as they reach that mandatory retirement age, and 14,000 pilots will age out of the cockpit by 2026.

"Pilots will be aged out, not because they're unsafe, just simply because they reach 65," Graham said. "My legislation would allow pilots to continue to fly if they meet the qualifications. We're not dumbing down anything."

"This legislation is critical to help address the pilot shortage and prevent air service loss in communities across the country," added Lemos.

But the unions representing airline pilots disagree.

"It's a bad idea and it doesn't solve the problem," says Capt. Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot for American Airlines and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association.

He contends the air travel problems this summer are not simply because of a shortage of pilots.

"There's a shortage of plans," says Tajer, adding that airline "management did not plan for this recovery" in air travel.

Tajer suggests that to the extent there is a shortage of pilots, the airlines brought that upon themselves. He points out that even though the airlines received $50 billion in taxpayer funding to keep employees on the payroll during the pandemic, many of them gave pilots generous early retirement packages, including partial pay, benefits and other enticements.

"To save money, they incentivized pilots to retire early and they never started training the pilots that would fill those seats," Tajer said.

The other major union representing airline pilots, the Air Lines Pilots Association, echoes those comments, while contending that there is no pilot shortage. The union says in a news release that the proposed legislation is a "misguided attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist."

"This legislation is yet another attempt to distract the conversation from the real issue, which is that some U.S. airlines have clearly failed to plan for the industry's comeback that we are experiencing today," Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA's president, said in the news release. He added that raising the retirement age "would only increase costs for airlines as well as introduce unnecessary risks to passengers and crew alike."

Because the international mandatory retirement age for pilots is also 65, if the age was raised in the United States, pilots 65 or older would no longer be allowed to fly overseas. Those routes are usually flown on widebody jets, such as Boeing's 777 and 787, so those veteran pilots would have to be retrained on smaller narrow body planes to keep flying.

That is one of the reasons some of the bigger, legacy airlines oppose raising the retirement age. They and others also bring up safety concerns, citing research showing that cognitive abilities decline as people age.

When asked recently about increasing the mandatory retirement age, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said he doesn't think it's a solution, telling CNBC that "at United, of our age 64 pilots, 36% of them are unavailable to fly on a given day for sick, short-term or long-term medical" reasons.

"We're already at 36% at that age, so extending the age ... I don't think is going to be the answer," Kirby added.

And Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg echoed such concerns recently on Fox News Sunday.

"Look, these retirement ages are there for a reason and the reason is safety. I'm not going to be on board with anything that could compromise safety," Buttigieg said. "The answer is not to keep the baby boomer generation in the cockpit indefinitely. The answer is to make sure that we have as many and as good pilots ready to take their place; to have a stronger pipeline."

Many aviation experts don't doubt that some airline pilots would be able to continue flying safely after turning 65, but they say, at best, it's only a short-term fix.

"This is not a solution to the pilot-supply issue," says Elizabeth Bjerke, a pilot, aviation professor and associate dean at the University of North Dakota. "This would be maybe a short term, extra bubble of pilots, but it's not going to fix the long-term issue of needing more pilots. We really need to focus on inspiring, exciting and supporting the next generation of aviation professionals."

Also looking to lower mandatory training hours

Another proposal aimed at quickly increasing the number of airline pilots is to reduce the 1,500 hours of flight time required for airline pilot certification.

There are exceptions to the FAA's 1,500-hour rule. Pilots with military training can be certified with 750 hours of flight time because that is considered optimal training; those earning a 4-year college aviation degree can earn an Air Transport Pilot certification with 1,000 hours; and those with 2-year degrees can be licensed with 1,250 hours.

Regional carrier Republic Airways has petitioned the FAA for an exemption to allow graduates of it's flight school to get a first officer's ATP certificate with 750 hours of flight time, the same level as pilots trained in the military.

Some experts argue that it's not the amount of time in the air that matters, but the quality of the training, and training in a commercial jet simulator will actually be more valuable to an aspiring airline pilot than flying a few hours in a small airplane a couple times a week or on weekends.

But Bjerke and others point out that the United States has enjoyed an unprecedented period of commercial airline safety since the 1,500-hour rule and other safety regulations went into effect a decade ago.

And she notes that one of the best ways to gain flight hours and valuable experience is working as a flight instructor after completing a flight school program. Most aspiring commercial airline pilots earn their flight hours by getting certified to be and working as flight instructors, so luring them to the airlines prematurely could actually exacerbate the pilot shortage.

There's already a shortage of flight instructors, Bjerke says, so losing the current pipeline of flight instructors to the airlines "would be detrimental to how many students we could bring into our aviation program. So, again, what looks like a short-term fix is going to have long lasting impacts on the pilot supply because we need qualified flight instructors to train that next generation."

But despite such concerns, as passenger frustrations this summer grow over chronic flight delays and cancellations, Congress may feel compelled to take up the proposals to increase the pilot retirement age and cut the number of hours required for air transport pilot certification.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.