Pilot shortage could affect experience requirements

There are fears some of these requirements may be weakened

(CNN) – The crash of Flight 9525 appears to be, first and foremost, about a person who clearly had a lot of problems.

What he did not have was airline flight deck experience. Just 600 hours. How that factored in, we don’t fully know.

It does throw a spotlight, though, on some larger questions of how to get safe, sane and professionally solid aviators into the cockpit, especially in the face of a global pilot shortage.

Lubitz was trained, by Lufthansa, in a program that takes either inexperienced pilots or even non-pilots, and turns them into airline first officers.

Their very first job is in the right seat of an airline cockpit with 150 people in the back.

In this country it’s different. Most airline pilots start as private pilots, or in the military, then do a variety of flying jobs, winding up with thousands of hours by the time they get where this co-pilot got.

However, that could be changing.

Instructor Pilot Gabrielle Hoekstra says, “Probably the best part of my job is waking up very early, coming to work for a 6am flight block and taking off that runway right there.”

At 21, Gabrielle Hoekstra is already teaching other aspiring pilots how to fly. “I love that flying brings out the best of my character.”

She graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University last May and is working as an instructor pilot. She had 250 flight hours at graduation and has already earned 600 more, but she’s still not able to fly for a commercial airline.

“At first, it’s a lot of money that you have to pay, a lot of time you have to put forward and lot of work on the front end, but as a career choice, it’s a great path to choose.”

It’s a path fewer people are choosing. In 2007, the FAA issued close to 67,000 student certificates. Over the next 6 years, that number steadily dropped, reaching around 49,000 in 2013.

Ken Byrnes, Chair of the Flight Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University says, “In general, the pool is smaller, for sure.”

Boeing has forecast a need for 88,000 new commercial pilots over the next 20 years in North America. Regional carriers in the U.S. are already sounding the alarm, being forced to reduce service in some smaller communities because, they say, they just don’t have enough qualified pilots to fly their planes.

Byrnes says, “It’s not an industry that you can just say hey, I want to be a pilot, and do a little bit of training and you end up being a pilot. You have to work a significant amount of time, you have to build a significant amount of flight hours in order to qualify and it costs a significant amount of money.”

There are several ways pilots can get the training they need to get to the cockpit. Some go to flight schools, others choose to get their education at a university like Embry-Riddle, where tuition costs about 45,000 dollars a year.

On average, students graduate from here with some 250 hours of flight time. That used to be enough to go straight from Embry-Riddle to a commercial airline. But after Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed in 2009, that transition became much harder.

Pilot error played a major role in that crash in Buffalo and many of the families of the 49 people onboard have pushed for some of the changes we’re seeing today, including raising the minimum requirement of flight hours to 1,500.

But there are fears some of these requirements may be weakened in order to meet the demand for pilots.

CNN Aviation Analyst Mary Schiavo says, “There’s tremendous pressure on the FAA to relax some of those rules and requirements, so they can get more people in the pipeline. But, then that would reduce safety. I think those were hard-fought safety rules. People paid for them with their lives, and they should not go back on them.”

Schiavo says, instead, the industry should focus on improving pilot pay. “The starting salary for teachers in the US is about 35,000, whereas the starting salary for pilots is about 22 or 24,000. So, if we accept the notion that teachers are underpaid, then pilots are way underpaid.”

Especially when you consider that the average pilot spends tens of thousands of dollars in training before they start making any money.

Hoekstra says, “I think that the industry will have to find a way to make the transition from starting to be a professional pilot to being that experienced pilot a little bit easier. Maybe increasing pay, having some more incentives to continue with the program. Otherwise, people are going to lose motivation.”

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