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.


Aspiring pilots who enroll in aeronautical colleges can expect big tuition bills. An undergraduate degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida costs almost $100,000. Thiel said nonacademic routes to a job at a major airline can be as expensive and take 10 years to complete.

All the same, a job isn't hard to find after a pilot earns a commercial license.

Two years ago, Frank Ayers, chairman of Embry-Riddle's flight department, was able to keep graduates on as flight instructors for a couple of years before they landed a job flying for a regional airline or other employer.

"I'm lucky now if I keep someone six months," Ayers said. "Don't get me wrong; it's a good problem to have. Despite all the bankruptcies, it appears that the increased demand for air travel is solid. Airlines have finished downsizing and have figured out how to fly profitably."

Analysts are betting that most airlines will report strong earnings in 2007. Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities thinks that American Airlines could earn earn $4.06 per share, or about $889 million, with United Airlines earning $4.80, or abut $531 million. SkyWest is expected to be the most profitable regional carrier, earning $2.71 a share, or close to $173 million, this year.

"There is a relationship between airline profits and hiring," AIR's Darby said. He believes that some airlines will earn as much as $1 billion a year as their profitability builds during the rest of the decade. "If that relationship holds true, we will see a lot of hiring."

The pilot hiring that SkyWest is undertaking is part of a broader plan to expand its 10,000-employee work force by up to 4,000 workers this year. In part, turnover is pushing the airline to accelerate pilot hiring. Regionals historically have been where young pilots assemble enough flying experience to move to bigger airlines.

About 10 percent of SkyWest's pilots leave the company each year. Some pack it in when they reach age 60. (Last week, the FAA said it would propose raising the compulsory retirement age to 65.) Others leave for jobs at other airlines, said Camille Ence, manager of pilot recruitment.

Most pilots who leave hope to hire on at national airlines and air cargo companies, which pay more and give better benefits, Darby said. FedEx pays an Airbus A380 captain with 10 years of experience $17,464 a month, according to WillFlyForFood.cc, a Web site that compares pilot pay. An American Airlines captain flying a Boeing 767 earns $11,008 a month. SkyWest jet captains with a decade of experience earn about $3,000 a month. First officers are paid $1,425 a month, according to WillFlyForFood.

Although some bankrupt carriers have turned their retirement programs over to the government Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., most retirement packages at the bigger airlines are still defined-benefit programs instead of 401(k) programs. Bigger airlines also provide more rest time between flights, Darby said.

The key reason why SkyWest must hire hundreds of new pilots this year is its growing alliance with Delta. In November, Delta selected SkyWest Inc. to take over some of the regional flying business operated by its Comair subsidiary. This month, Delta will shift the flying of 12 Canadair regional jets to SkyWest, The company also is waiting to hear whether Delta will award it another 131 Comair jets. Each aircraft needs a rotation of nine pilots.

Delta also granted eight of the 70-seat jets to SkyWest when it bought Atlantic Southeast Airlines in September 2005. Those aircraft are scheduled to be delivered between now and May.

The growth in the numbers of pilots and other employees "will be primarily dedicated to our Delta mainline partnership," SkyWest's Clark-Mantle said.

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