Possible pilot shortage raises safety concerns

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By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — An industry forecast that nearly half a million new airline pilots will be needed worldwide over the next 20 years as airlines expand their fleets has raised safety concerns that airlines will hire lower caliber pilots as they struggle to fill slots.

Boeing, one of the world's largest makers of commercial jetliners, forecasts about 460,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide between now and 2031 as global economies expand and airlines take deliveries of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners. The forecast includes 69,000 new pilots in the North America, mostly in the U.S. The greatest growth will be in the Asia-Pacific region, where an estimated 185,600 new pilots will be needed.

Likewise, Boeing predicts 601,000 new aircraft maintenance technicians will be needed over the same period, with the greatest demand — 243,500 technicians — in the Asia-Pacific region. An estimated 92,500 new technicians will North America.

The rising global demand for airline pilots has raised concern among industry and government officials that there will be a global and a domestic pilot shortage.

"In many regions of the world, a pilot shortage is already here," the Boeing forecast said. "Asia Pacific in particular is experiencing delays and operational interruptions due to pilot scheduling constraints."

That's particularly true in China and India, industry officials said. Airlines based in Asia and the Middle East have been holding pilot job fairs in the U.S. and thousands of pilots laid off due to U.S. airline bankruptcies and mergers are now flying for foreign carriers.

"We have airlines around the world as they buy our airplanes and come to us on the training side of the house, saying 'We're struggling to fill (pilot) seats. Can you help us?' " said Carl Davis, Boeing's chief of pilot services. Davis presented his company's forecast Thursday at a conference in Washington on pilot training hosted by the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union.

U.S. industry and government officials are also concerned that the rising global demand for pilots, combined with an anticipated wave in pilot retirements and tougher qualification standards for new pilots that kick in next year, will create a domestic shortage as well.

"I'm concerned because it has safety implications," John Allen, the Federal Aviation Administration's director of flight services, told The Associated Press.

Allen said he wants to spur a discussion among industry, labor unions and academia about a potential shortage that will "really look at this and address it, not to just sweep it under the rug. ... Is this a problem? And, if it is a problem, how bad is it?"

He said he is fearful that if there is a shortage, airlines will hire pilots who are technically qualified but don't have the "right stuff."

"If the industry is stretched pretty thin ... that can result in someone getting into the system that maybe isn't really the right person to be a pilot. Not everybody is supposed to be a pilot," Allen said.

Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, responding to Allen's comments, said: "Safety is always our top priority and our airlines hire pilots that meet the rigorous standards set by the FAA." The International Air Transport Association didn't respond to a request for comment.

Lee Moak, president of the pilots union, said he doubts a pilot shortage will be felt in the U.S. for about three to five years. If U.S. airlines start hiring pilots in large numbers, he said, pilots now flying for foreign carriers will likely return home. There are currently about 90,000 airline pilots in the U.S. and Canada.

"Globally is another matter," Moak said.

Industry and government officials anticipate a wave of pilot retirements at U.S. airlines beginning this year. Five years ago, the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65. The fifth anniversary of that decision is Dec. 13. Pilots who were age 60 on that date five years ago are reaching the age where they have to retire.

Also, FAA regulations created in response to an aviation safety law passed by Congress two years ago will raise the experience threshold required to be an airline first officer from the current 250 hours of flying time to 1,500 hours, the same level as required of captains. That's expected to make it harder for airlines to find qualified new applicants.

At the same time, the pool of military-trained pilots that airlines have relied upon in the past has largely dried up as more pilots choose to remain in the military rather than seek airline careers, industry officials said. That means airlines have had to rely on new hires that have accumulated their experience at flight schools and, later, working as flight instructors at local airports and the flight schools.

"The cost of getting into flying is very expensive," Davis said. "When I talk to college students, if they're coming out of a four-year collegiate (aviation) program, most of them are $150,000 to $160,000 in debt. And that only gives them the qualifications to go be a flight instructor. If you're making $20,000 a year as a flight instructor you're lucky."

A shortage in the U.S. will likely first be felt at regional airlines, which tend to fly smaller airliners and hire less experienced pilots than mainline carriers. A typical pilot career path is to get hired as a first officer at a regional airline, get promoted to captain and then get hired by a mainline carrier.

"It appears based on retirements alone there is going to be a massive need for mainline hiring," said Dave Ryter, a regional airline captain who spoke at the training conference.

"If that comes to fruition," Ryter said, "the mainlines will draw from the regionals. ... It's the regionals that will have to find the entry-level pilot. That will be the first challenge, although it will eventually trickle up to the mainlines."

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