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Shortage of airline pilots not so dire, new report says

Hundreds of airline pilots are set to retire soon and new federal rules require existing pilots to get more rest between flights.

Does that signal a pilot shortage for the airline industry?

It depends on who you talk to.

The impact of a pilot shortage would hit travelers hard, as airlines would have to cancel flights and raise fares for those remaining flights that are fully staffed. Airline executives have recently blamed a pilot shortage for cuts to air service.

Bryan Bedford, chief executive of Republic Airways Holdings Inc., said last month that the regional carrier would be removing 27 of its 243 aircraft from service because of a lack of qualified pilots. United Airlines chief executive Jeff Smisek cited financial losses and a pilot shortage for United's decision last month to close its Cleveland hub.

There are signs of a shortage.

For example, the number of pilots who are forced to retire in the U.S. jumped from 592 in 2012 to 1,367 last year. This is projected to rise to 1,519 this year, according to aviation consultant KitDarby.com.

Airlines will need to spend the next decade hiring an average of 1,900 to 4,500 pilots a year to meet growing travel demand, according to federal estimates.

Fewer pilots will be available to fly under rules that increase the amount of rest pilots get between flights and regulations the require extra training and new tests to sit in the cockpit. The changes were ordered by federal officials after the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air plane near Buffalo, N.Y.

But a study released last week by the Government Accountability Office found mixed evidence of a pilot shortage. The GAO said a large number of qualified pilots may be working abroad, in the military or in other occupations where salaries are higher.

The world's largest pilot union released a statement last week saying that the only reason pilots are in short supply is because regional airlines are not willing to pay an adequate, livable salary. Regional airlines carry about 22% of all domestic passengers.

The average starting salary for new first officers in the regional airline industry is only $22,400, according to the Air Line Pilots Assn. International, which represents nearly 50,000 pilots at 31 airlines in the United States and Canada.

"There is a shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry, not a shortage of pilots who are capable and certified to fly the airlines' equipment," said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the pilots association.

Airlines try to woo passengers with food, other amenities

A food fight is breaking out in the airline industry.

Airline seats and fares are so indistinguishable among the nation's major airlines that carriers often try to promote other services — such as onboard entertainment, food or airport lounges — to win over new passengers.

"It's always been a fight for airlines to decommoditize what is largely a commodity," said Seth Kaplan, a managing partner of the trade magazine Airline Weekly.

Take for example, Virgin America, the California-based airline that recently announced a posh new menu for first-class fliers. It includes hors d'oeuvres of roasted tomato, marinated artichoke heart, olive and mozzarella skewer, served with warm mixed nuts. Plus, the carrier last week asked the public to vote on three choices for the airline's signature ice cream flavor.

United Airlines jumped into the fray with new gluten-free dishes, including salad dressing, snack boxes and fruit and nut bars.

And last month, Delta Air Lines added several low-calorie sandwich wraps on transcontinental flights. The wraps are accompanied by multi-seed coconut chocolate chip cookies.

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