A Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-900ER.
Ted S. Warren / Associated Press
Airlines are once again bracing for a shortage of pilots as air travel ramps up.
Pilots are in short supply and pilot training is costly, long, and arduous.
Airlines are raising pay scales while offering massive sign-on bonuses and lowering education requirements for new hires.
Aviation’s pilot shortage is back with a vengeance following a temporary reprieve during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Airlines are pulling out all the stops in an effort to attract talent and encourage more people to become pilots. And after decades of low pay, intense training, and furloughs, pilots are being given an opportunity to shape their own career path while getting paid more.
Breeze Airways, the startup airline founded by David Neeleman of JetBlue Airways fame, has already raised the pay for its pilots after seven months of operations. New hire first officers flying Breeze’s Embraer E190/E195 aircraft will see an 11% increase to $61 per flight hour, while first officers assigned the Airbus A220 aircraft will see a 24% increase to $68 per flight hour.
Many airline pilots who are just starting out will no longer have to endure low wages as they work their way up the ladder. Regional airlines, often the first stop for pilots that hope to fly for major carriers, are back to offering big sign-on bonuses to new hires.
Missouri-based regional airline GoJet Airlines is offering $20,000 bonuses to first officers, while pilots that have enough experience to join the airline as a captain are being offered $40,000. US regional carriers often have to fight the hardest to attract talent given the variety of competition.
Pilots looking to make the jump over to a major carrier will now have fewer barriers to doing so. Delta Air Lines is reducing its education requirements for prospective pilots when applying by eliminating the requirement to have a four-year college degree.
“While we feel as strongly as ever about the importance of education, there are highly qualified candidates – people who we would want to welcome to our Delta family – who have gained more than the equivalent of a college education through years of life and leadership experience,” Delta wrote in its announcement. “Making the four-year degree requirement preferred removes unintentional barriers to our Delta flight decks.”
United Airlines similarly prefers but does not require a bachelor’s degree for its pilot applicants and American Airlines does not list any preference or requirement for having a degree. Independent flight schools allow pilots to earn their required licenses and ratings without the additional cost of a college education.
“Ab initio” programs, where prospective pilots with no prior training can get all of their required licenses, are also growing in popularity in the US with airlines like United getting ready to open their own pilot academies in places like Arizona. Though pilots still bear the cost of training, they will have a set career course to fly for a major airline and have access to financial aid including loans.
Some pilot requirements are outside of an airline’s control, including the required number of flight hours a pilot must possess before being hired by a passenger airline and the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory retirement age of 65. But not all airlines are looking for pilots who intend to stay for decades.
Breeze, for example, wants to hire older pilots who retired from the airline industry amid the pandemic, even if they only have a few years before reaching retirement age.
“Anybody who has three years left would be great because they bring in maturity, discipline, and lots of experience,” Christopher Owens, Breeze’s vice president of flight operations, told Insider.
Another lever that airlines including Breeze are pulling is hiring pilots from Australia under the E-3 visa program for skilled workers. Breeze has seen at least 120 applicants for the program, which more airlines are adopting to increase their supply of pilots.
Airlines are realizing that they can’t afford to not address the pilot shortage as they are already feeling its effects. Regional airlines flying on behalf of United, for example, have been forced to ground hundreds of aircraft as well as cut and reshuffle routes.
“I’m a little less optimistic that that situation is going to reverse itself in the near term unless we do something to increase the supply of pilots,” Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive officer, said in a Senate hearing last month.
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