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The Experience Matters

    Why the national pilot shortage is acutally a good thing for aspiring airline captains

    by Julee Cobb

    If you have an interest in pursuing aviation as a career, chances are, you’ve heard about the thorn in the commercial airline industry’s side: the pilot shortage. It is an issue with staggering numbers, like the estimated deficit of 2,000 pilots in the United States this year alone. It is an issue with significant consequences, such as cancelled flights, service termination in certain cities and bankruptcy filings. And it is an issue with an uncertain resolution, as more than 18,000 pilots are set to retire in the next decade

    While many regional carriers and major airlines are anxious about how the pilot shortage will shake out, rightfully so, individuals dreaming about an office at 40,000 feet should only see blue skies ahead. That’s because the current career climate in the commercial airline industry undoubtedly endorses the pilot. It’s all about supply and demand, and those wanting to fly for a living are the solution to the industry’s dilemma. 

    As someone exploring a future in aviation, seeing the industry that you want to work in struggle with unpredictability could be unsettling. But when you are the key to solving the problem, the odds are always in your favor. Read on to find out several reasons why the pilot shortage is actually a good thing if you want to end up saying, “This is your captain speaking...”

    Pilots are a valuable commodity

    In the Boeing Market Outlook for 2015-2034, projections were made that North America will require around 95,000 new pilots during that 20-year span. The number sounds astounding when you hear it, and it is, considering flying airplanes is really a niche career. Studying to be a pilot is very different from other typical two-year and four-year degrees: it involves earning a variety of certifications, building numerous flight hours and learning a specific expertise. 

    Though the industry is concerned about steadily filling those thousands of positions, aspiring pilots should be excited by the promise of the job numbers. Yes, there is a sizable investment of time and money for this specialized career, however, there is a pay off in knowing a job is waiting at the end of all that hard work. In fact, there most likely will be multiple opportunities available for commercial airline pilots to choose from after completing their requirements. Pilots are a valuable commodity in their industry and this kind of leverage should encourage every aviation dreamer to get their future ready for takeoff. 

    There are exceptions in the required flight hours

    Have you ever heard about the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407? It was an airplane accident that has played a pivotal role in today’s pilot shortage. The wreck caused the Federal Aviation Administration to rethink the requirements of all first officers, primarily increasing the number of certifications and flight hours they must obtain. Because of these changes, it has been taking pilots a longer time to qualify for regional airline jobs, thus bottlenecking the process.

    There are exceptions to this rule, however, that help some pilots enter the work force more quickly. Rather than applying the mandatory ruling of 1,500 hours of total flight time and an age of 23 years old, pilots who are in the military or attend an approved university bachelor’s or associate degree program only need to be 21 years old and are eligible for flight time reductions:

    • Military pilots only are required to obtain 750 hours of total flight time.
    • Graduates from an approved university R-ATP bachelor’s degree program with at least 60 semester hours of aviation coursework, like Kansas State University, only need to obtain 1,000 hours of total flight time.
    • Graduates from an approved university R-ATP associate or bachelor’s degree program with at least 30 semester hours of aviation coursework only need to obtain 1,250 hours of total flight time.

    While the cutback in flight hours for a first officer is nowhere near the requirements prior to the Colgan crash and adjusted rule – a commercial certificate with 250 flight hours – it provides aspiring pilots with an option to curtail the time it takes to transition from a student to professional. This means educational costs will be reduced and pilots will be able to start getting paid sooner.

    Commuter airlines are paying up

    If a pilot’s ultimate goal is to fly as a captain at a major airline – American, Southwest, United, Delta – there is a layover, so-to-speak, at which he or she must stop before reaching their intended final destination. Regional, or commuter, airlines are a stepping stone for pilots once they achieve their flight hours and certification requirements. These entry-level jobs are critical to the United States travel industry, for instance, performing 44 percent of passenger flights in 2015. But because these positions typically have offered meager salaries and the cost of flight programs can rival a few years at an Ivy League school, aspiring pilots sometimes wonder if their dream is worth it. Wonder no more…

    The pilot shortage has forced regional airlines to stay competitive, not only with one another but with the major airlines too. Regional carriers are a part of the supply chain for major airlines, and when the majors are in desperate need for pilots, they pluck talent more quickly, leaving the commuters’ inventory devoid. Because of this predicament, regional carriers have been willing to increase salaries, award recruiting bonuses and offer retention packages all in an effort to entice and keep their captains and first officers.

    Endeavor Air, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, offers some of the highest hourly rates in the industry for a regional carrier, paying just over $50 per hour during a pilot’s first year and reaching around $92 per hour for the third year. They also provide a $10,000 bonus for training completion, a $2,000 bonus to any employee who recruits another pilot to their company and a guaranteed interview with Delta. Republic Airways, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, has elevated first-year pay from $23 to $40 per flight hour and currently promises a signing bonus of up to $17,500 for new hire first officers while Mesa Airlines, who operates for American Airlines and United Airlines, has a $50,000 sign-on and retention bonus.

    While pilots have the opportunity to earn a salary of more than $300,000 a year at a major airline, it will take some time for them to become established at that pay level. Seeing regional carriers step up their game is helping pilots to understand they can get a return on their investment more promptly. Not only can individuals be selective about the airline for which they would like to fly when beginning their career, they also have more earning potential than pilots only a few years ago. This all makes the dream of having a career in commanding the skies extremely feasible.

     You could be a change agent for your industry

    Imagine having a job that means more than simply performing the daily tasks and responsibilities you are assigned; that your contributions actually fuel growth and change within your industry. Wouldn’t you like to have a career that truly makes an impact? 

    Being a commercial airline pilot means supporting the world’s transportation system and being liable for hundreds of people’s safety every day – these are not menial duties. Pilots are relied upon to bring family members home to their loved ones, to help business leaders connect with their clients or other associates, to reunite old friends, or make someone’s dream vacation a reality. They keep the globe moving.

    Earning your wings also means this: you are providing your industry assistance with one of their most burdensome challenges. By becoming a pilot, you help to fill a gap in the shortage, and with each new pilot, the supply shifts from scant to stabilized. Even as only one person, you can make a difference for your profession in need. 

    When someone decides to begin the journey of becoming a pilot, it could be for a variety of reasons: aviation runs in the family; the person is an adrenaline junky, thrill seeker or adventurer; earning potential is important; or normal nine to five jobs just don’t cut it. Whatever the motivation, pilots also have the opportunity to be a change agent within their industry, contributing to the solution of the shortage.



    Now it is time to come in for a landing: If you are interested in turning your curiosity or passion for aviation into a career, Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus in Salina offers four different bachelor’s degree options: professional pilot, airport management, aviation maintenance management and unmanned aircraft systems flight and operations. Contact Kansas State Polytechnic’s admissions office at 785-826-2640 or for information on the programs or to schedule a campus tour.

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