Make us your home page

Commercial airlines brace for shortage of pilots

Many like flight instructor Kristy Bolingbroke, 26, shown Friday instructing student Marc Hesler, 30, are beyond airlines’ grasp.


Many like flight instructor Kristy Bolingbroke, 26, shown Friday instructing student Marc Hesler, 30, are beyond airlines’ grasp.

Kristy Bolingbroke fits the profile of a pilot airlines would like to hire. An experienced flight instructor. Lots of time at the controls of twin-engine planes. A college graduate with an MBA to boot.

She's not interested.

Life on the first rung of an airline career — a first officer for a small feeder airline — isn't for her. She'd share a crash pad far from Tampa with other pilots on duty, earn $20,000 a year or less and rely on the whims of the economy to move up to a major airline, said Bolingbroke, 26, chief flight instructor at Atlas Aviation on Tampa's Davis Islands.

Bolingbroke isn't alone in her outlook on the life of a commercial pilot. And that's bad news for the airlines. After a long drought, carriers are ready to crank up pilot hiring to deal with a wave of retirements, new government regulations and anticipated growth.

But there won't be enough pilots to fill the ranks of regional airlines, also called feeders, that fly travelers from small cities to hubs of the major airlines, say aviation professionals. Flight schools aren't as busy and many would-be commercial pilots like Bolingbroke are opting to take a different path.

Some small cities will lose their only airline service or see flights cut back, says Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. Major airlines will pluck the pilots they need from the regionals but could be forced to rein in their growth with less access to connecting passengers.

"It's going to be like a snowstorm that hits only the regionals," said Louis Smith, president of, a career consulting site that tracks pilot hiring trends. They will run short and cancel flights as soon as this summer, he said. Others say the shortage is a year or two away.

On some level, the problem boils down to this: The job of flying for a big airline isn't what it used to be. In the '90s, senior pilots made over $200,000 a year. Now, pilots work longer and receive less pay and fewer benefits.

Network airlines such as Delta and US Airways struggled with economic downturns and competition from low-cost carriers though most of the last decade. They furloughed thousands of pilots. Most slashed pay and terminated rich pension plans, leaving pilots with a fraction of the retirement income they'd expected.

Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who in January 2009 safely ditched his jet with 155 aboard into the Hudson River, told a House subcommittee in 2008 that cuts put veteran pilots in an "untenable" financial position.

"I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps," he said.

Enrollments of U.S. students at flight schools plummeted in recent years, leaving a gap in the new-pilot pipeline. The Federal Aviation Administration forecast that the number of student pilots would drop to about 69,000 this year, down 26 percent over the past decade. That includes recreational pilots as well as those aiming for an airline career.

As the economy tanked, banks stopped making loans for aviation training, said Dan Greenhill, center manager at FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach. The academy made up for the loss with Asian, African and European students sponsored by governments or national airlines.

Pilot training costs $100,000 and up and takes about two years. Like commercial lenders, many parents think it's a bad investment in a career that pays peanuts to start and could stall in the next business downturn. "The issue is risk and reward," Smith said. "And the reward is so tentative."

The once-reliable flow of military pilots into the airlines slowed considerably over the years. About 25 percent of new airline pilots now come from the uniformed services, half as many as a decade ago, said Kit Darby, a pilot career consultant.

Hiring hit all-time lows in recent years as carriers cut flights amid spiking fuel prices and declines in business travel, he said.

JetBlue Airways was the only major airline to hire more pilots in 2009, and it hired only 30. But that's about to pick up because of several changes to the rules governing pilots.

In 2007, the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65. The oldest pilots will reach 65 in December. Then 2,000 a year will retire from major airlines, Darby said. They will need to be replaced.

Additionally, the FAA is likely to adopt new regulations that give pilots more rest time between shifts and cut back their hours on duty. Airlines will need more pilots just to fly existing schedules within the rules.

And a law Congress passed last year could increase by a couple of years how long it takes to operate a commercial flight. Pilots will need to log 1,500 hours of flight time, although legislation allows the FAA to substitute other experience, such as a college degree, for some of the hours.

First officers now must fly just 250 hours. Pilots typically build flight time working as flight school instructors, as Bolingbroke did. But she's pointed in another direction. "Maybe a corporate business job in aviation," she said.

The airline hiring binge can't come soon enough for Ben Contreras, an instructor for T Black Aviation at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

He borrowed $100,000 for pilot training at a school in Sanford and landed a first officer position with regional carrier American Eagle in January 2008.

Contreras, 33, was furloughed 11 months later, followed by dozens more Eagle pilots, as the recession deepened. He expects to return to the cockpit after pilots with more seniority are brought back.

"I've heard about (new hiring)," he said. "I just haven't seen it yet."

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (727) 893-8128.

Commercial airlines brace for shortage of pilots 02/12/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 5:45pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Heights Public Market to host two Tampa Bay food trucks


    TAMPA — The Heights Public Market announced the first two food trucks for its "rotating stall," which will feature new restaurants every four months. Surf and Turf and Empamamas will be rolled out first.

    Heights Public Market is opening this summer inside the Tampa Armature Works building.
[SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times file photo]

  2. Author Randy Wayne White could open St. Pete's biggest restaurant on the pier

    Food & Dining

    ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.

    St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, pilot Mark Futch, Boca Grande, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and author and businessman Randy Wayne White,  Sanibel, exit a Maule Super Rocket seaplane after taking a fight around Tampa Bay off the St. Petersburg waterfront, 6/28/17.  White and his business partners are in negotiations with the City of St. Petersburg to build a fourth Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille on the approach to the St. Petersburg Pier with a second event space on the pier according to White. The group met near Spa Beach after a ground breaking ceremony for the new pier. "We want to have our business open by the time the pier opens," said White. Other Dr. Ford restaurants are located on Sanibel, Captiva and Ft. Myers Beach. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
  3. Guilty plea for WellCare Health Plans former counsel Thaddeus Bereday


    Former WellCare Health Plans general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District …

    WellCare Health Plans former general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday, pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District of Florida stated Wednesday. [LinkedIn handout]
  4. DOT shows alternatives to former Tampa Bay Express toll lanes


    TAMPA — State transportation officials are evaluating at least a half-dozen alternatives to the controversial Tampa Bay interstate plan that they will workshop with the community for the next 18 months.

    Florida Department of Transportation consultant Brad Flom explains potential alternatives to adding toll lanes to Interstate 275 during a meeting Wednesday at DOT's Tampa office. Flom presented seven diagrams, all of which swapped toll lanes for transit, such as light rail or express bus, in the I-275 corridor from downtown Tampa to Bearss Ave. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]
  5. Claim: State pressured CFO, used secret recordings to shut down Universal Health Care


    ST. PETERSBURG — The founder of St. Petersburg's Universal Health Care alleges that Florida regulators conspired with the company's chief financial officer to drive the once high-flying Medicare insurer out of business.

    Federal agents raided the headquarters of Universal Health Care in 2013, ordering employees to leave the building. The insolvent St. Petersburg Medicare insurer was then in the process of being liquidated by state regulators.
[DIRK SHADD   |   Times file photo]