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The Impending Pilot Shortage (and How It Might Be Averted)

One charter has a remedy for the catastrophic pilot shortfall that might leave your jet's left seat empty—or compromise flying safety.

Empty airplane cockpit Photo: Protasov AN/Shutterstock

Convenience and comfort are the big perks of flying privately, but passenger safety matters most. Everyone wants to arrive at their destination on time, well rested, and well fed—but implicit in that is the desire for the peace of mind that comes with believing you’re going to arrive at your destination in one piece. The pilot shortage that is starting to plague the aviation industry (both private and commercial) could give you pause before you board a plane; you might wonder whether the individuals in the cockpit are the most qualified or competent candidates for the job.

The shortage is trickling down from the top, where, according to a recent Boeing study, 637,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide over the next two decades to fly the 41,000 new aircraft that the passenger and cargo airlines will purchase during that time frame.

Meanwhile, over the next decade in the United States, about 22,000 pilots at the largest airlines—more than 40 percent of the pilots at those companies—are expected to exit the airways as they reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. The retirements, compounded by additional aircraft entering service, will create a need in the United States for 117,000 new pilots over the next 20 years, according to one study. And due to the dearth of new pilots entering the pipeline, some projections indicate that this country could experience a shortage of as many as 35,000 pilots over the next 15 years.

The supply of new pilots is not keeping up with the demand for at least three reasons. First, it takes longer to train to become a commercial pilot than it used to (and therefore it’s more expensive). In addition, the salaries and working conditions at the regional airlines—essentially the minor leagues for pilots looking to move up to the major carriers or corporate-jet jobs—can scare away potential pilots. Finally, the numbers are down at the airlines’ other farm system—namely, the military—in part because we live in relatively peaceful times.

Kimberly Herrell Schubach Aviation

Kimberly Herrell, president of Schubach Aviation  Photo: Monica Hoover

“We’ve definitely felt the effects of the pilot shortage,” says Kimberly Herrell, the president of Schubach Aviation, an aircraft charter and management company located in Carlsbad, Calif. “It’s pretty much industry-wide now. There had been a lot of talk for a long time about how it was going to happen, and then it was here. With that said, we’ve still been able to find quality talent.”

Herrell continues: “We’re in direct competition now with airlines for pilots, and more than ever the airlines are heavily recruiting out of the flight schools. They’re trying to enlist pilots when they’re 1,000 hours in, to get them on the right track. So general aviation has to come up with a response to make sure that we’re attracting and fostering talent, as well, because the airlines offer a pretty good career track.”

Schubach Aviation Hangar

Schubach Aviation Hangar  Photo: Brent Haywood

Schubach Aviation’s response includes at least five prongs, some of which other charter companies could employ—to the benefit of their passengers as well as their pilots.

More Money

A decade ago, a pilot could be hired to fly a regional airliner with as few as 250 hours of flight time; now, you need 1,500 hours. Following a series of crashes involving commuter flights, including one in Buffalo in 2009 that killed 50 people, Congress mandated stricter requirements for commercial-airline hires. More flight time means paying more to get a job that, initially at least, pays so poorly it could encourage prospective pilots to consider other careers. Starting salaries of less than $50,000 are common.

“We’ve interviewed guys [for positions at Schubach Aviation] who fly for regional airlines,” says Herrell. “I don’t know how they survive on what they’re being paid. I mean $45,000 a year—are you kidding me? The pilots are doing it with the goal of logging flight hours to work up to a major airline and one day becoming a captain with Delta or Southwest.”

To help lure pilots away from that career path, says Herrell, Schubach Aviation has raised its pay scale 20 percent in the past year. Of course, someone has to foot the bill when a charter company raises its pilots’ wages: the passengers who pay the charter fees, the aircraft owners who pay management fees and collect a share of the charter-passenger fees, or the charter company itself.

Better Hours

A commercial pilot’s work schedule often involves 10 days on followed by 10 days off. “That schedule sounds good until you actually live it, where you’re on the road for 10 straight days,” says Herrell, referring to the possibility of pilot burnout. Schubach Aviation, in contrast, is more like the 9-to-5 world, with pilots usually working 15 to 17 days a month and often driving to work in the morning, making one round-trip flight, and driving home that evening. “You’re responsible for one person, one trip the whole day,” she says. “It’s not multiple back-to-back flights.”

Newer Planes

Charter companies may want to retire their older planes as the older pilots retire. “Pilots are picking and choosing what planes they want to fly now,” says Herrell, noting that younger pilots in particular prefer to fly aircraft that are equipped with the latest avionics. “I think that it’s going to get harder and harder to find pilots to fly some of the older aircraft. When [prospective clients] come to me with older aircraft [to manage], I’m not confident I can provide a crew for them.”

Mixing It Up

A commercial pilot’s job can become monotonous, says Herrell, but what attracted many pilots to aviation in the first place was the excitement that the profession promised. “Pilots generally like adventure,” she says. “I don’t think any general aviation company can compete with the benefits of an airline company, but most pilots don’t want to be doing just gear up, gear down. With airlines it’s so formalized. You know exactly what you’re getting every day, exactly what you’re going to do. With general aviation, you can go to a different airport every day. You’re interacting with clients, you’re checking the weather, you’re making all the decisions. It’s amazing work if you have the right personality for it.”

An Enviable Address

Schubach is located near the San Diego Naval Base and the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (formerly the home of the Top Gun training program), which could be—but aren’t necessarily—big talent pools for pilots. As noted, the U.S. military is also experiencing, or about to experience, a pilot shortage. The navy has predicted a 10 percent shortage of pilots by 2020, and the air force is expecting to be 1,000 pilots short of its target number by 2022.

Still, when you’re trying to recruit any type of employee, it doesn’t hurt to be based in Carlsbad, located on the Pacific coast just north of San Diego. “We do have that nice advantage,” concedes Herrell. “A lot of people would love to live here.”

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