Repercussions of Demand

March 8, 2001


Airline hiring boom reverberates throughout the pilot community

By John Boyce, Contributing Editor

March 2001

An unusual but not unprecedented jump in airline pilot hirings over the past few years has led to a situation which has many flight schools scrambling for flight instructors. At the same time, it may be having an effect on the quality of training received at the entry level.

Major airlines, enjoying a boom over the past three to five years, are hiring some 5,000 pilots per year and don’t have a shortage. However, they are getting many of those pilots from national and regional carriers, who, in turn, get the bulk of their pilots from the ranks of Certified Flight Instructors (CFI). To fill their pilot seats, the regional and commuter carriers have been reducing their minimum flight hours, which means the CFIs aren’t staying with flight schools as long as they had to in the past to build up hours. Thus, a flight instructor shortage.
"I don’t think there’s any question," says David Kennedy at the National Air Transportation Association, "that the airlines are hiring a bunch of people and that is creating a downstream problem for flight schools."
Kit Darby, president and founder of AIR Inc. of Atlanta, which tracks aviation hiring trends, says, "All the regionals are having severe turnover problems. They averaged between 50 and 70 percent of their pilots hired last year and they’re extremely busy hiring and training new pilots. And they’re losing them to the major airlines almost as fast as they do that. That (regional airlines) is where the flight instructors find their first jobs. It’s sort of a top down problem, where we’re hiring a lot at the top and it pulls pilots through the whole system....
"There are (flight) schools out there that are unable to do business. They’re unable to expand or even maintain their current business due to the lack of flight instructors."
"Absolutely," says Sean Elliott, executive director of the National Associa-tion of Flight Instructors, when asked if airline hiring has created a vacuum at the bottom end of the pilot pipeline. "You look at the hiring minimums of the airlines and they have gone down and down consistently over the last three years. They have reduced the number of hours required, the type of equipment flown. What used to be a three-year process to get to the regional job is now a 12-month process....
"We’ve seen a lot of the instructor ranks move on to the higher paying jobs, which has done two things: It’s created a shortage; and, it has started an increase in the CFI pay scale, which is a really good thing."
Leslie Erb, who runs a flight school at his FBO in Centralia, IL, Airgo, Inc., says of the situation, "Normally, a beginning pilot comes to us with zero time and we instruct him up to flight instructor, which is about 250 hours. He would usually stay with us until about 1,500 hours, which is two years. Now, they (regionals) pick him up with 500 hours. It’s difficult for us to keep people here but it’s also difficult for charter operators, freight operators, and the airlines. Everybody is having the same problem."

With pilots, particularly CFIs, on a fast track to the airlines, a question has arisen about the safety of less experienced flight instructors teaching new students, or as one observer put it, "babies teaching babies."
According to Mike Henry, manager of the general aviation and commercial division of the FAA’s flight standards service, "training accidents, overall, were down last year but the number of fatal training accidents and the number of training fatalities right now appear to be up." A full analysis of the raw data is underway.
"Right now," says Henry, "it looks like this past training year we had a higher number of midair collisions that were attributed to training. It also seems there were more people in the airplanes than we have historically seen. For example, the accident close to Philadelphia, I believe with a Navajo that had nine people in it, had a midair with a multi-engine trainer that had two people in it. So, eleven fatalities — that’s very unusual."
The Air Safety Foundation, an affiliate of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, is also analyzing the data. Preliminary findings suggest that while the number of fatal accidents is indeed up, there doesn’t appear to be any trend or common thread.
"At this point," says Warren Morningstar, vice president of communications for AOPA in Frederick, MD, "there is no pattern. There is nothing to support the premise that it’s inexperienced flight instructors (who are responsible for the accidents). It’s just all over the place. Many of the accidents involved already certificated pilots, so clearly these are prime students. Some of them were solo accidents but they were called training accidents because the pilot was working on an additional rating."
Hal Shevers, founder and chairman of Sporty’s in Batavia, OH, says almost coyly, "Just a clue: It looks like the studies will show that the brand-new, green, inexperienced instructors aren’t killing people. I’m just giving you a clue as to what I’ve heard. And I definitely did not say it was the more experienced ones. The new ones are no worse than the old ones, apparently. Maybe the new instructors are a little more cautious."

Shevers says that more people are learning to fly, which will lead to the pipeline filling at the bottom end. Shevers’ optimism is cautiously shared by Drew Steketee, the new president and CEO of GA Team 2000 and the BE A PILOT program, headquartered in Washington, D.C. He reports that the program will soon announce an aggressive new plan to increase the number of student starts.
Says Steketee, "If you’re going to be optimistic about this, even though the economy is going to decelerate, it’s going to be a manageable proposition.
"I’m not sure about the airline hiring boom continuing, except that the airline forecasts show tremendous growth. If that relates to the number of units in service and the number of pilots required, that may be the answer. We’ve moved up to over 600 million airline passengers a year and it’s forecast to go over 1 billion in the future.
"The other thing is that some of these regional airline careers are more attractive than they used to be as the regionals very quickly convert to all jet fleets."
Steketee thinks part of the solution will be increasing student starts, assuming, of course, that instructors are available. He says that he can’t be sure of the number of student starts because "the FAA has some problems with student start statistics. (But) from data before now, we know that we’re climbing up from the 60,000 level (of the early 1980s) but we’re not back to the historic 90,000 to 100,000 student starts figure that is the long-running average in this business."
James Lampman, director of operations and senior vice president of Virginia Aviation in Lynchburg, VA, says, "I’m on the board of Ohio Unive-rsity, and they’re simply tooling up to produce more pilots. The institutions around the country that have the capacity to produce more pilots are simply doing that. The major players are buying more airplanes, hiring more instructors, and hiring more general staff to produce more pilots."