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Smaller airlines face more competition for crews as Air Force plans to recall 1,000 pilots

An Air Force pilot prepares to depart in a T-6 Texan II aircraft at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, Aug. 31, 2012.

BENJAMIN FASKE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By BART JANSEN | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 21, 2017

The Air Force plan announced Friday to recall 1,000 pilots from retirement could hurt smaller airlines in the competition to hire trained crews to fly their planes.

"We anticipate that the Secretary of Defense will delegate the authority to the Secretary of the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots for up to 3 years," the Pentagon said in a statement.

Airlines have warned for years about a looming pilot shortage, with the threat that smaller communities could lose regular airline service. But the debate is contentious because pilot unions contend that if regional airlines offered better pay, more candidates would embark on the costly training to join the industry.

"I think that it makes sense from the Air Force perspective to look at retired pilots for the needs of the military," said John Cox, a former airline pilot who is now a consultant as president of Safety Operating Systems.

"There is a pilot shortage, so it's going to have some effect," Cox added. "But the major airlines are still filling their classes. It's the regionals that are struggling a little bit, and some of the business aviation slots are proving difficult to fill."

Boeing projected in July that airlines will need 637,000 new pilots over the next 20 years, including 117,000 in North America, for the anticipated growth in passengers.

Meanwhile, the number of FAA pilot's licenses held by people 20 to 59 years old has declined nearly 20% from 2009 through last year, according to an analysis by the Regional Airline Association, a trade group for smaller carriers.

The number of top-level Airline Transport Pilot licenses grew slightly during that span, to 126,070 last year. But the number of lower-level commercial licenses and private licenses, whose pilots could feed into the airlines, have declined from a combined 283,339 in 2009 to 198,551 last year.

"This is a supply-demand mismatch," Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said in April to describe the recruitment challenges. "The nation as a whole is producing less pilots than we need in order to service commercial, business and business aviation."

Horizon Air is one carrier that felt the brunt of the competition, forced to cut thousands of flights from its schedule this year for lack of pilots, according to The Seattle Times. Alaska Airlines and SkyWest Airlines have picked up the slack.

"I think you're going to see more impact in the regional airlines and the air taxi or in some cases the business aviation than you will at the major airlines," Cox said.

To bolster its hiring, the major carrier JetBlue Airways began a program to train its own pilots. The first six members of the Gateway Select program finished the first year of the four-year program in September. The airline was recruiting another 24 candidates by the end of last month.

The shortage is also being debated in Congress. The Regional Airline Association, representing smaller carriers with half the country's flights, have argued for years that a 2013 rule from the Federal Aviation Administration made it harder to hire starting pilots.

The rule required first officers to match captains with at least 1,500 hours of flight experience, up from the previous 250 hours. Exceptions were made for military pilots with 750 hours of experience or graduates of four-year colleges with 1,000 hours.

The pilots’ union contends that regional airlines would have plenty of starting pilots if they paid an average of more than $30,000.

FAA legislation pending in the Senate would allow classroom lessons to count for some of the hours. But pilots and relatives of victims of the last fatal crash of a U.S. passenger airline have fought the change, arguing that safety shouldn't be compromised.

"The good news is that we currently have more fully qualified pilots in the United States than there are positions available, and air travel is the safest mode of transportation in the world due to our commitment to schedule with safety," the union said in a statement. "However, we do need to make sure we have an adequate future supply of qualified pilots – earning good salaries – and guard against efforts to reduce safety, especially as it relates to pilot training and qualifications."

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