The United States is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travellers are returning after more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At least one US lawmaker is said to be considering legislation that could raise the federally-mandated retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 or higher to extend aviators’ time in the skies. A regional airline proposed reducing flight-hour requirements before joining a US carrier, and airlines are rethinking training programs to lower the barrier to entry. Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines joined other big carriers in dropping a four-year degree from its pilot hiring requirements.
“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on a quarterly earnings call in April. Kirby estimated the regional airlines United works with currently have about 150 aircraft grounded because of the pilot shortage.
The Covid pandemic halted pilot hiring as training and licensing slowed. Airlines handed out early retirement packages to thousands of pilots and other employees aimed to cut labour bills when travel demand cratered during the depths of the crisis. “I feel like I walked away at the pinnacle,” said one former captain for a major US airline who took an early retirement package in 2020.
Now airlines are desperate to hire and train pilots, but the rush may take too long to avoid flight cuts. Major US airlines are trying to hire more than 12,000 pilots combined this year alone, more than double the previous record in annual hiring, according to Kit Darby, a pilot pay consultant and a retired United captain.
The shortage is particularly acute at regional carriers that feed major airlines’ hubs from smaller cities. While hiring and retention bonuses have returned at those airlines, pay is lower there than at majors, and they are recruiting aggressively from those smaller carriers. Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, which flies for American and United, lost nearly $43 million in the last quarter as flight cuts mounted. “We never fathomed attrition levels like this,” said Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “If we don’t fly our aircraft we lose money.”
Regional carrier Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, last month petitioned the US government to allow pilots to fly for the airline with 750 hours, half of the 1,500 currently required, if they go through the carrier’s training program. There are already exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule, such as for US military-trained pilots and those who attend two- and four-year programs that include flight training. The proposal has received push-back from family members of victims of the 2009 Colgan Air 3407 crash, the last fatal US passenger commercial airline crash. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground and ushered in the so-called 1,500-hour rule, aimed at ensuring pilot experience.
The Federal Aviation Administration cast doubt on whether the proposal would be approved. “While anyone can request an exemption, it does not mean it will be granted,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA fully understands the intent of Congress when it established the 1,500-hour requirement and supports the safety goal it set out to achieve.”
About a third of the airline-qualified pilots in the US are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the country’s airline pilots will reach retirement age within the five years, according to the Regional Airline Association.
Pilot and other worker shortages have forced airlines to rethink their growth plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are among carriers that have recently trimmed capacity. SkyWest, for its part, told the Transportation Department it plans to drop service to 29 smaller cities that the government subsidizes through the Essential Air Service.
Service reductions could isolate smaller US cities but Darby, the pilot pay consultant, said it could mean an opening for smaller competitors that don’t rely on regional airlines as much as major network airlines. “If they don’t fly it, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.
The USA EB-2 Immigration Programme was designed for experienced foreign airline pilots wishing to settle in the USA through the National Interest Waiver program. Successful candidates and their qualifying family members are granted a Green Card in the USA in 12 to 16 months. This is of special interest to suitably qualified South African pilots.
Pilots can obtain unconditional Green Cards (permanent residence status) for the applicant and dependents, generally including spouses and children under 21. Each of the applicants and dependents will have independent Green Cards giving them the right to live, work, and study in the USA and opening a pathway to U.S. citizenship after 5 years of residence in the USA.
All pilots with at least 10 years of full-time experience in possession of a valid CPL or ATPL and evidence that you have commanded a salary or other remuneration for services that demonstrates your exceptional ability are welcome to apply. Membership in a pilot professional association and recognition of achievements and significant contributions to your industry or field by your peers, government entities, and professional or business organizations will be beneficial. Academic records showing a degree, diploma or certificate related to the aviation industry from a college, university, school or other comparable institutions will also smooth the process.
The process starts with a pre-assessment and the collection of all supporting documents followed by the submission of the application, with supporting documents and individualised letters of support. Within 8 to 12 months the applicant should receive National Interest Waiver this is followed by the filing of immigrant visas at the U.S. consulate abroad. Within the 3 to 6 months the applicant should obtain their immigrant visas. The applicant should then enter the USA within 6 months of issuance of immigrant visas and the Green Cards will be received by post to a USA address.
Operations like Aeronaut Recruiting Specialist have fine-tuned the application and will guide the applicant seamlessly through the whole process greatly increases the possibility of being accepted. Aeronaut Recruitment Specialists has teamed up with leading industry experts in the various services that they offer to ensure they only offer you the best service possible. Being involved in aviation themselves, they understand the dynamics and challenges that go with the recruitment process and therefore can assist you on a personal level.