Looming pilot shortage shows first signs

KIMT News 3 – While an aviation safety legislation in 2013 is meant to keep the skies safe, it could also be keeping qualified pilots from reaching their goal.

If you’ve flown any where in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed the cost of a single ticket is sky-rocketing, but the demand for flight has never been higher.

To meet the rising demand of airline pilots around the country, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that as many as 18,000 pilots will be needed by the year 2020.

Some are calling it, the most expensive “gap year” you’ll ever hear about.

A staggering number, considering, that’s the number of pilots currently flying regionally combined.

What was once a manageable $40,000 to $50,000 worth of debt to get your commercial wings, has now become $150,000 in some cases.

“Every kid likes to shock their parents. So when they asked what are you going to do next, I said I think I’d like to fly,” said Albert Lea Municipal Airport Manager, Jim Hanson.

At 16, many of us may have thought about school, sports, and getting our first car.

For Jim Hanson, that wasn’t the case.

His wanting to rebel from the norm, led him to a not-so-ordinary passion. A passion for flight.

“I went back out there, and spent nine hours or more, every hour that I could get into an airplane just to learn to fly,” said Hanson.

Now a member of the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame with more than 30,000 hours of flight time, and recent recipient of the Wright Brother’s Award for 50 years of accident-free-flight ,it’s safe to say, the man has some experience.

While the news of a looming shortage of folks in the air service going into the field saddens the veteran pilot, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

“There have been pilot shortages, or rumors of pilot shortages several times over the last 30 years, but this time I guess it’s for real,” said Hanson.

Up until August 2013, any one in search of their commercial pilots license would only have to obtain 190 to 250 hours of flight.

However, a ruling by Congress to help ensure higher safety standards in the wake of many unforgettable crashes, now requires 1,500 hours of training and certification to make it to be considered qualified by larger carriers. Although you can still receive your license out of school for 250 hours.

That’s more than 62 days in the air.

Although Jim agrees that their intentions were good, their solution couldn’t have been more dramatic.

“When you look at it compared to the Asian and European airlines, they come back and take people with no time and no flight experience at all. The 1,500 hour rule not only requires that they somehow come up with this additional time, but they also have to spend a lot of extra money,” said Hanson.

“For a flight-hour of training in an aircraft, it’s about $100 per hour. If they’ve got another 1,200 hours to do, you’re looking at a lot of money to increase that flight time to where they will actually be hired,” said Ron Duer.

Duer is a pilot instructor with Iowa Lakes Community College, and says the pressure put on pilots would only make sense, if these students were able to pay back the debt fairly quickly.

“You can almost flip burgers for more than you’ll make now as a starting pilot,” said Duer.

To help build up toward that goal of 1,500 hours, most pilots become flight instructors themselves and make money in the process, but according to Ron, even that isn’t enough.

“If they want to keep operating, they will have to raise the pay level for the entry-level pilot to make it look attractive for young pilots to go that route,” said Duer.

With the recent departure of one of their major carriers alongside the already high demand for more pilots, the Mason City Airport is one of many regional airports with their sights on taking off once again.

“We knew that change was coming in the requirements of the pilots for commuter lines. We didn’t know however, that it would have such a great effect,” said Tom Hovland.

Hovland is a board member with the Mason City Municipal Airport, which has struggled to find a new carrier since early this year.

According to Tom, the trickle-down effect of these pilots is causing more harm than good.

“All of a sudden to have this pilot situation, it’s really putting a damper on the airport’s economy, and it affects the economy of towns around here,” said Hovland.

Tom says he believes we can right the wrong done by an over-bearing policy and once again fly commercially out of Mason City.

“Just because other ones have let you down, doesn’t mean these guys are going to. We’re very excited about getting them here,” said Hovland.

As he smiles and enjoys his craft, Jim says he’s confident that long-term, this will not keep pilots from the itch to explore the world, one flight at a time.

“If the flying bug catches you, there’s probably not an escape. You will find a way to come up with money to do that training and make this a career. I’ve often said, that if we build a fence around the airport, people will find a way to get in if they really wanted to fly,” said Hanson.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently pushed the retirement age of pilots from 60 to 65-years-old in order to postpone the pilot shortage.

In addition, many regional airlines now offer signing bonuses of up to $12,000.

Current estimates show that the aviation industry could lose as much as $26 billion dollars, if the shortage continues.

A report published this spring by the US Government Accountability Office, shows that small airports have lost 20 percent of flights since 2007, medium sized airports have lost 24 percent and large hubs have lost close to ten percent.

This makes up a loss of 80,000 total seats.

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