Here is what’s causing the commercial pilot shortage

Airlines point to federal regulations for pilot training

Airlines discuss solutions to "pilot shortage" in the U.S. (Piedmont Airlines)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Those flying through Orlando International Airport can speak to how hectic it can be to navigate — especially during the holiday season.

Recently, pilots at the airport staged a protest regarding poor working conditions caused by staffing shortages, which they said led to strenuous schedules and fatigues.

“We’ve been picking up and working record amounts of overtime,” one pilot said. “We’ve been working longer days and shorter nights.”

Nationwide pilot shortages have contributed to the hundreds of thousands of delays and flight cancelations across the U.S. in 2022. But the question remains: why is this happening?

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According to Tyler Tenbrink, the director of talent acquisition for Piedmont Airlines, one of the major issues stems back to 2015 with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“There was a FAA change — a minimum requirement change — I think back in 2015 that raised the minimum requirements for pilots to become commercial airline pilots,” Tenbrink told News 6.

Tenbrink said the increase raised the 250 flight-hour minimum to 1,500 flight hours, a dramatic increase that Tenbrink says drove many away from the industry.

“It’s a huge change, really,” Tenbrink said. “If you go from 250 to 1,500, that’s a lot of hours you have to build in. It’s pretty daunting.”

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In 2009, a deadly plane crash near Buffalo, NY, resulted in the deaths of all 49 people on board. At the time, investigators said the crash was a result of pilot error.

In response, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Extension Act, which provided the FAA with authority to establish training requirements for commercial pilots — including the eventual drastic change in necessary flight hours.

That increase in flight hours has led to skyrocketing costs, which Tenbrink said can range from $65,000 to $150,000 to fully train someone to the point that they’re ready to fly for a commercial airline.

“That really is what drove folks away from the job itself,” Tenbrink said. “The minimum requirements are just really —it’s a huge change.”

And those same problems can trickle down to the passengers.

“When there’s a shortage of any type of crew member, it can cause issues with customer service,” Tenbrink said. “That means if there’s not a pilot to fly the flight, then flights get canceled or delayed.”

The 1,500 flight-hour requirements aren’t universal, however. Countries like Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada require far fewer hours, being closer to the United States’ original 250-hour quota.

“Foreign pilots or foreign carriers have less strict requirements on the hourly side than the United States has,” Tenbrink stated. “Currently, pilots in some countries will allow pilots to be trained by them, and then they go into the right seat of the cockpit with 250 hours or right around there. And then we have the 1,500-hour requirements.”

Tenbrink said Piedmont, a subsidiary of American Airlines, hasn’t been a stranger to the shortages, though it has been trying to find solutions.

One such fix was to put together a “cadet program” to help pilots fund their training — about $30,000, along with other potential bonuses, he said.

“What that cadet program does is supplement some of the training for pilots and gives them some monetary relief when it comes down to utilizing those funds to train to be a pilot,” Tenbrink explained.

Last month, Republic Airways, an airline operating under Delta Connection, American Eagle and United Express, tried to appeal to the FAA to relax some of its flight-hour requirements to help ease the shortages.

[RELATED: FAA rejects airline request to hire less-experienced pilots]

The regional airline asked FAA to allow them to hire pilots with at least 750 flight hours — half of the required amount — if the pilots could complete Republic’s training program.

However, the FAA said it was not in the public’s interest to do so, calling the request “overly simplistic” in thinking it would address “a perceived pilot shortage.”

Typically, pilots can qualify with fewer flight hours if they have military experience, and Republic CEO Bryan Bedford had argued that the airline’s program would be comparable to military flight training.

“Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, our proposal would enhance safety by providing students a highly structured, mission-specific training approach,” Bedford said.

The Air Line Pilots Association, a pilots union in the U.S., instead shifted the blame for pilot shortages to the airlines themselves, saying some of these companies are trying to “shortchange” pilots.

“This is not a pilot-availability issue,” Capt. Joseph DePete of ALPA said in a statement. “Airlines offering competitive pay, benefits and job quality are having no problem hiring pilots.”

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the total number of fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours has dropped from 1.10 to 1.05 between 2015 and 2020 — a roughly 4% difference.

FAA reauthorization is set to expire in October 2023.

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About the Author:

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined in April 2022.