During the pandemic airlines encouraged some pilots to take early retirement through buy outs, while not training new pilots. So when air travel recovered faster than expected, they found themselves short-staffed, without enough pilots to operate the flights consumers demanded. That has meant less reliable air travel and more expensive airfare.
For years the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the major pilots union, has lobbied for federal rules that make it difficult to become a pilot. Fewer pilots keeps wages high, and gives unions leverage during contract negotiations – they can’t just be replaced if they strike (or if an airline were to lock them out). But with a shortage of pilots, some of those rules have come under scrutiny.
- 1500 hour rule. There is absolutely no relationship between safety and the 1500 hour rule – a rule that no other nation has adopted. The U.S. allows pilots from nations without such a rule to fly here and depart from U.S. airports. And U.S. airline pilots are allowed to fly through foreign airspace, and land in foreign airports, where no such rule exists. Everyone knows that the 1500 hour rule isn’t meant to promote safety, it was a ‘do something’ move after the Colgan Air crash (both of those pilots had over 1500 hours!) and the major airline pilots union was ready with a suggestion and used the opportunity to push it through.
- Mandatory retirement age. And there’s no reason to have a mandatory retirement age when pilots undergo health checks. We need to update those checkups, perhaps, but retirement should be about the ability of the pilot not age per se.
ALPA, though, pushes back by claiming incredulously that there is no pilot shortage. They argument is that there are more new commercial airline pilots licenses being issued than officially advertised openings for commercial airline pilots in the U.S.
The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) has released new data from the FAA that reportedly demonstrates that the United States is producing a record number of certificated airline pilots this year, with more pilots in the market today than there are jobs available.
According to the FAA, 9,397 new commercial airline pilot certificates have been issued in the last 12 months, exceeding airline analyst forecasts and airline pilot demand. In addition, the U.S. has roughly 10 percent more flight instructors than before the pandemic, which will allow for increased pilot production in the future.
The American Airlines pilots union – which is considering merging into ALPA – didn’t get the memo. Contra ALPA’s claim about more flight instructors at airlines than ever, APA spokesperson Dennis Tajer complained to CNBC that there’s not enough throughput to train pilots (that training is ‘jammed up’).
The much bigger issue though is that ALPA’s argument that ‘there are enough pilots are’ is misleading.
- Not everyone with a commercial pilots license is going to fly for a commercial airline. Some may wind up flying cargo, flying charters, flying private.
- Not everyone with a commercial pilots license should be able to fly for a commercial airline. Being licensed means meeting the bare minimum government standards to fly, not being qualified. Airlines don’t hire everyone that walks through their door.
Ironically, ALPA says airlines want to get rid of rent-seeking rules that benefit pilot unions in order “to weaken proven pilot training safety standards so they can hire less qualified aviators for lower pay and benefits.” However taking ALPA at face value, and hiring everyone and anyone with a government license, would do just that!
There’s no safety justification for the current retirement age or 1500 hour rule to become a commercial pilot, where some candidates get carveouts with lesser requirements and where hours are hours rather than having a structured program where what a pilot is doing in the air for each of their hours matters. And the only one that ALPA offers is that air travel is safe, though it’s safe in Europe and there’s no actual reason why hours of unequal quality would be the driver of safety.