Demand for Pilots Sky-High

Because SkyWest is unwilling to relax its requirements, it must work harder than some airlines to hire qualified pilots. SkyWest Airlines intends to hire 700 pilots this year.

Fresh on the heels of hiring 610 pilots last year, SkyWest Airlines intends to hire another 700 this year to keep even with the regional carrier's snowballing growth.

It will be a daunting task. Regionals are flourishing as they pick up less-profitable and shorter routes that national carriers no longer want to fly. The consequence is a shortage of commercial pilots, which some in the industry predict could reach a crisis level and others say has compelled some airlines to lower their hiring standards closer to government minimums in order to fill seats in their cockpits.

"We are looking nationwide. We have a full-court press throughout the system," said Necia Clark-Mantle, vice president of people for St. George-based SkyWest. "The market in general is pretty difficult."

SkyWest executives say the airline has not lowered its hiring benchmarks. Its applicants need 1,000 hours of flying time, including 100 hours piloting multi-engine airplanes in order to get a job interview, and its typical candidate has 1,800 hours of experience. The Federal Aviation Administration requires 250 hours of flight time for a commercial license.

"Anything above and beyond what is stated [in FAA rules] is a business decision on the part of the airline," FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.

Because SkyWest is unwilling to relax its requirements, it must work harder than some airlines to hire qualified pilots. Great Lakes Airlines demands 750 hours and is not feeling a shortage of acceptable candidates, said Monica Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based regional carrier. American Eagle, which is hiring 30 to 60 pilots a month, accepts as few as 400 hours if applicants complete pilot training at approved flight schools, spokesman Dave Jackson said. American Eagle is a subsidiary of AMR Corp., which also owns American Airlines.

SkyWest has posted help-wanted notices on its Web site, and it will conduct pilot career fairs in Salt Lake City and seven other cities this month. The airline wants to talk to pilots who fly for other regionals or who have been furloughed by bigger carriers. And it's combing through university aviation programs, looking for acceptable candidates.

There might be no time like the present to become a pilot for hire. Airlines hired about 8,500 aviators last year, and the pace should continue at that level or higher for the next 10 years, according to AIR Inc., which tracks pilot hiring. Aerospace giant Boeing Co. estimates the global appetite for new pilots at 17,000 a year through 2024.

"All I can say is it's the best time to get into the industry," said Mike Kraus, program director for the aviation studies program at Westminster College, which graduates about 110 commercial pilots a year, ready for the job market. "When you are born sometimes controls your destiny and opportunities."

The remarkable turnaround of the airline industry - whose fortunes ebbed after 9/11 - is behind much of the demand for pilots, said Kip Darby, president of Atlanta-based AIR. Much of the industry is returning to profitability after wresting huge pay and benefits concessions from employees, shedding expensive retirement programs and shifting more flying to contract carriers such as SkyWest. Rising fares and falling jet fuel prices are helping, too.

At the same time, the military - traditionally one of the best sources of commercial pilots - is retaining more of its aviators. And many pilots who leave the military are choosing other careers, underlining the instability in the airline industry that has pushed many carriers to extract big pay and benefit cuts from their employees.

"The next big crisis is a lack of qualified crews," said Ed Thiel, a Delta Air Lines captain and member of the executive council of the Delta unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. "The airlines are having difficulty finding qualified applicants. There are not as many people coming out of the military route, and it's almost prohibitively expensive to go through the civilian route, while the career has degraded to the point where it doesn't make sense to go into the business."

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