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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.

LARA CERRI | Times

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 Flt.Ops.com, 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 huettel@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8128.

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