How The Big Airline Pilots Union Misleads You For Their Own Gain

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Just as soon as someone qualifies you to fly an aircraft, will your opinion have any merit. But in the meantime, by all means throw your 2 cents in. You should stick to talking about ways to get an upgrade, and leave subjects that you are not an authority on to the pros.

  2. The vast majority of unions in America are bad for business, bad for workers, and bad for consumers. They are pretty much only good for Democrat politicians.

  3. Got my commercial just as a challenge and to sharpen my skills…unfortunately the FAA is conservative about these things and the public and press really don’t understand aviation very well either. (I blame the airlines for infantilizing how they treat passengers by making thing mysterious, but that’s another story.) So wave the flag of “safety” and nobody wants to use good judgment or common sense. And it’s a bureaucracy! Even for private pilots with any medical issues out of the ordinary trying to unscramble the Byzantine and glacially slow processing system can be a nightmare. In any case, back in 1959 the government arbitrarily required airline pilots to retire at age 60. It took endless complaints until the age was finally raised to 65…and that was 48 years later!

  4. “There is absolutely no relationship between safety and the 1500 hour rule – a rule that no other nation has adopted.”

    What’s your proposed solution?

    250-hours as some countries allow?

    No thanks.

  5. Clearly pilots I have known to retire at 65 had a lot more to offer. In fact two I know we’re almost instantly hired by private jet operators. If health is good and there is someone capable in the right seat I’m pretty certain there should be no issue. If the Union were sincere you would think they would fight for the rights of some talented 65+ year old aviators.

  6. ICAO (international air authority) also has a 65 year retirement age so it’s not just the FAA. Although some Pacific countries (Japan & Australia to name a few) have increased the age to 68. Since most of your pilots in this age group are your international captains, I don’t see how the FAA changing the retirement age changes anything until ICAO does…or else you have 787, 777, A350 captains sitting at home because they cannot fly to Europe even though the FAA has changed their rule.

  7. The US has required pilots to have 1500 hours to hold an ATP certificate for many, many years. The regulation you’re referring to (incorrectly) simply requires pilots to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate when operating a transport category aircraft in operation for an airline. A very reasonable requirement that has resulted in the safest air transport system in the world since it was implemented. Prior to this much needed regulation, there were countless 250 hour pilots with no experience occupying a right seat and essentially leaving the captain to fly single pilot when SHTF and they check out, all while your unsuspecting loved ones are riding in the back. It happened ALL. THE. TIME. and still does with foreign carriers… However, I wouldn’t expect you, or anyone else, to understand what this means and why it’s important. Thankfully, the professional aviators that carry you from point a to b while you enjoy your first class beverages have your best interest (safety) at the top of our priorities.

  8. My hope is that the union fights against the proposal to only have one pilot in airplanes. because of a pilot shortage. This proposal terrifies me.

  9. @FR8dawg – understand perfectly well what’s at issue here, and in Europe which did not follow the US with this requirement. The hours qua hours do not add to safety, focused hours might but that’s not the rule.

  10. As a retired pilot I can say with confidence that I agree with Gary on this one. 400 hours should earn you a job as a co-pilot. Everything else is just political BS.

  11. Would it be fair to say that all those ALPA and APA members who were working for air carriers before the 1500 rule was instituted and had less than 1500 hours were dangerous and should have had no business being on the flight deck?…Since it’s about that magic number right?
    Also, I’m not sure if the unions are playing games about not drawing the distinction between a commercial license and an ATP. How many CPL holders go on to obtain an ATP?…..It certainly ISN’T 1:1.
    Maybe the Brandon Administration will declare the 1500 Rule is racist and lower the requirements to say….300 if you’re LGBTQIA2S++LMNOP, 500 if you’re black and 750 if you’re latino/a/x/×/-, Asian will INCREASE to 2000 since they’re now “privileged” and whites will be BARRED from the profession altogether.

  12. CHRIS and Gary.

    You are both dumbasses who dont know what youbare talking about. 1500 hours is minimum experience. Since this was enacted after the moron crashed the Colgan aircraft, aircraft safety went up 98 percent.

    So keep talking out your orange ass. Neither one of you is qualified to be a stewardess.

  13. The Colgan crash was with pilots who both held ATPs so the 1,500 hour requirement didn’t apply to them anyway.

    As noted above, 1,500 hours has been the minimum for a very long time for Captains. First officers could have less, but none were hired with less than 1,500 in the U.S. for a very long time in any event.

    Gary: You still haven’t provided your proposal on what pilot requirements should be. We hopefully agree that the 250-hour button pushers being rushed out in Asia is not the answer.

  14. 4 of previous 5 fatal airline crashes prior to 1,500 rule had pilots at the helm that bought jobs via a company called Gulfstream. The 1,500 hour rule stopped that in its tracks. Yes, they had way more than 1,500 hours when the crashes occurred, but a bad apple is still a bad apple.

    This is why it’s been a good thing.

    I do agree 100% that the 1,500 hour rule, in a myopic view, didn’t help safety, other than stopping low quality people from being able to buy a job. But that is its biggest contribution (and it worked).

    Airline tech and equipment hasn’t changed appreciably in the past 20 years, yet there have been no airline fatal crashes since the law went into effect besides the UPS cargo crash attributed to fatigue (and they opted out of FAR 117).

  15. The 1500 hour rule does not distinguish between high skilled commercial flying and low skilled commercial flying. Flying between two small airports in remote Australia is counted the same as flying between JFK and IAD. Flying is more than just “hours”. The hour rule was an easy solution to a not so easy task of automating expertise through something that is measurable. Any good Captain can tell the difference between a competent pilot and an inexperienced one.

  16. “There is absolutely no relationship between safety and the 1500 hour rule – a rule that no other nation has adopted.”

    Africa has no 1,500 hours rule: the co-pilot of the Ethiopian 737-MAX that crashed has 361 flight hours logged.

    Most commentators said that the crash would not have happened with US pilots because of their experience.

    That’s good enough of a relationship for me and for my daughters and sons.

    This race to the bottom is extremely hurtful.

  17. @the incredulous commenters, This post is laced with fallacies that fit the anti-union bias of the author who has no experience with labor relations, flying, and some other things covered in the post.

    A union doesn’t benefit from having fewer pilots who are higher paid. A union benefits by having more members (not fewer) who pay dues even if those members are lower paid. Pilots benefit from higher pay, not so much the union. If memory serves, this blog has noted that unions often sell out their members when that is in the interest of the union. For a union, more members equal more power politically and with an employer.

    Airline pilots are incredibly hard to replace in the event of a labor dispute. Airlines don’t even seriously contemplate the possibility. There aren’t (and probably never will be) thousands of unemployed people with ATP ratings sitting around who are qualified to step in immediately and fly the various types of planes an airline flies. Even if there were thousands of ATP certified pilots available, just imagine the expense involved in getting thousands of them qualified on simulators and not even knowing if those pilots will even be needed. Gary has not identified a single instance in which a major airline replaced its pilot workforce in a work stoppage, ever.

    Another problem with using replacement pilots (assuming it was even feasible) and the few who will cross a picket line is that that the original workforce would have the right to return to work once a strike or lockout ended. Having a mixed workforce with scabs (as the union would refer to them) and the workforce that went on strike working together would likely be a disaster. The animosity between the groups would be monumental. The friction would lead to operational and maybe safety problems that could last for years. An airline would have to be pretty desperate to invite those kinds of headaches.

    Gary is sadly mistaken to assert that health checks will ensure that old pilots are safe. Gary’s favorite old-pilot punching bag is Harrison Ford.
    Ford undergoes periodic medical checks but Gary frequently points to various incidents he was involved in as demonstrating that he shouldn’t be flying due to age.

    Without a mandatory retirement age, to fire an older pilot the airline thinks is unsafe, an airline would have to prove she was unsafe. No such test exists and check rides aren’t hard for pilots to pass. Check rides and simulators don’t adequately replicate the stress of an actual inflight emergency. A pilot’s life and the lives of the passengers aren’t on the line in a simulator. The difficulty in determining when an older pilot is or will become unsafe is precisely why an arbitrary mandatory retirement age was established. This age limit is lawful under an exception to state and federal age discrimination laws.

    Even if a health check or check ride could prove that a pilot was unqualified to fly, the pilot would have been unqualified for some prior period. You’re not going to have them tested every day. Relying on those methods guarantees that there will be always be some older pilots who are unsafe to fly. If one of those pilots is involved in an accident, don’t hold your breath waiting for VFTW to apologize to the families of the dead or pay them any compensation.

  18. @Alan, Unless you are saying the 400 hours is in high-powered jets with sophisticated avionics in all kinds of weather, as a private pilot with 400+ hours and an instrument rating who knows many pilots with a lot more hours than that, I strongly disagree. A co-pilot needs to be able to handle everything not just sit there while the captain does the work. I doubt that many 400-hour copilots would ever have the nerve to correct or even question the actions of a senior pilot. Do you think that would be a problem?

  19. Airline pilots are evil.
    Flight attendants are evil.
    Gate agents are evil.
    Check-in agents are evil.
    Baggage handlers are evil.
    Airport lounge staff are evil.
    TSA personnel are evil.
    Reservation agents are evil.
    Revenue management personnel are evil.
    Loyalty program personnel are evil.
    Airline management is evil.
    Airport news shop employees are evil.
    Airport parking lot attendants are evil.
    ATC personnel are evil.
    Airline passengers are evil.
    I hope I haven’t missed anyone.
    Now that we’ve identified that EVERYONE is evil, can we get back to points?
    (Recommended viewing: Twilight Zone, Season 3, Episode 29 titled “Four O’Clock.”)

  20. I don’t trust anything the unions say. They are hardly neutral parties. Both pilots on the Colgan flight had over 2,000 hours of flight time. The problem was they didn’t have adequate sleep. The 1500 rule is stupid. They could get all those hours in a small plane in a rural area . That does nothing to prepare them for commercial flights in major cities. No other country has this rule as far as I am aware and there isn’t a rash of crashes all over the world happening. Some pilots rely on automation too much. Any semi-competent pilot can fly a plane in ideal conditions. The reason they do soo much training is not for the ideal conditions but for the isolated incidents when things don’t go according to plan. For those claiming about how great the safety record is now. How many of those prior crashes were due to pilot inexperience? Also, by making such claims they are ignoring all the other steps that have been taken to make aviation safer. I’m not saying standards should be lowered but 1500 is an arbitrary number that doesn’t mean much. People need quality hours training on the aircraft they will be flying in the environments they will be flying it in. Also pilots should not just be passed along but only those that have established clear proficiency should be moved up. It should be based on an arbitrary number of hours but actually proving they are ready to be moved up.

  21. I apologize in advance as I haven’t read through the comments. The 1500 Hour rule was not ALPA’s idea. You can thank all of the legislators who are experts at just about everything! So, perhaps you should direct your displeasure toward them.

    Regarding the age 65, believe me, try flying international long haul for the last 20 years of your career. I did that. The first time you do it, it is fun. After that, the fun wears off really fast. I am 72 and I have been retired for 8 years it was the smartest thing I ever did! I can sleep in my own bed, I know what time it is, I can go out with my wife to a play or the movies and not fall asleep and I get to celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving and all the other important dates!

    I know we are limited to 1,000 hours/per year but we work a lot more hours than that! Name one other job where you are subject to a physical every 6 months where you get to play “you bet your ticket!”, everything you do and say in your office is recorded. I could go on and on about all the
    “good deals” we get. I won’t bore you.

    Believe me, I never once in over 50 years of military and commercial flying, I never had the feeling I was going to a job. I have 3 adult children and I am very happy non of them had the desire to become a pilot. They have stable jobs, enjoy their families, and are active parents. My hat goes off to them.

    ADIOS!!

  22. @Ben Dover “I apologize in advance as I haven’t read through the comments. The 1500 Hour rule was not ALPA’s idea. You can thank all of the legislators who are experts at just about everything! ”

    In fact the 1500 hour rule was offered by ALPA to those legislators. They lobbied for it.

  23. 1500 rule stopped pilot mills cold, and that benefited everybody. I was an LCA, and you can absolutely tell the difference between people based on how they got their training and time.

    Another number other than 1500 might be fine, but you need a minimum, probably at least 750.

    US pilots would not have crashed into the seawall at SFO on a beautiful, clear, calm day.

    You’re obviously not an airline pilot and have little knowledge of what you speak, so kindly stop.

  24. Gary you just sit back there in comfort, and safety, and enjoy your free Coke. When we need info about how to scam airlines out of miles that’s your te.to speak up. Maybe you should think about going to the vet next time you need heart surgery, the only party responsible for the current pilot shortage are the airlines who have artificially suppressed wages and working conditions for the past 20 years.

  25. Uh oh Gary…you BETTER not ever write about pilots or their thug union again or else all these hardo pilots (certainly not aviators) will start whining about how bad they have it only making $300k a year…..and that their kids hate them and won’t talk to them because their marital infidelity destroyed their family….and that they’re paying alimony to 3 ex wives.
    This is one industry that could use MORE automation…not less. Would I fly in a pilotless airplane? Seeing as almost EVERY crash in history has been pilot error. Yes.

  26. Recently, the YouTube channel Mentour Pilot (Petter runs it) had an episode on the Colgan Air crash. The captain/pilot flying had a number of not-passed evaluation check rides. Colgan Air did not allow more than one such failure when hiring, but there was no database of evaluation results, and he lied on his application. His recovery from stall upsets was poor. There was a chain of events starting with a icing setting which was forgotten, slow application of flaps by the first officer when landing, a sick first officer with a cold, failure to brief the landing before entering decent, failure to maintain a sterile cockpit, and an unexpected autopilot disengagement resulting from the icing setting. The captain inexplicably pulled up on the stick without adding power when the disengagement triggered a stall warning (which wasn’t really a stall, but a poor interaction with the icing setting which increased minimum speed by about 10 knots before the stick shaker would operate). Pulling up slowed the aircraft, which put it into a real stall, and because he had a record of poor recovery from stall upsets, failed to recover from the stall at low altitude, and drove a perfectly functional aircraft into the dirt.

    Congress had few mandates for the FAA, but required additional stall upset training, reminders of sterile cockpit rules, building of a pilot work experience database, and identification of training requirements. The FAA dithered on the database, and did not create it until long after required by Congress. This requirement for a database of check ride results, had it been in effect, would have prevented the captain from being hired.

    The biggest problem with the 1500 hour requirement is that, since flying is expensive, forces new pilots into paying roles like flight instructor, banner pulling, and utility surveys. These roles are very repetitive, and if the weather is bad, they can wait for another day, so they don’t get much experience with recovering from unanticipated events. Being a flight instructor doesn’t even require all that much flying, as the student pilot is doing most of the flying, but the flight instructor still gets flight hours. The second issue is that the 1500 hour requirement tends to favor richer people who can pay for all the training and put up with the poorly paid roles available before 1500 hours. Richer people aren’t necessarily the better pilots.

    Petter is a check airman for a European airline, and represents that the pilots he has had as new 500 hour first officers are well qualified after going through the airlines training beyond their 500 hours, including simulator time. The captain does have some responsibilities that the first officer does not, including decisions on whether it’s safe to depart given current weather conditions at the origination and destination at time of arrival. Some airplanes do not have a tiller for controlling the nose wheel on the first officer’s side, which would require the left seater to taxi. The FAA does allow less than 1500 hours for graduates of aviation college programs, as well as military pilots, so there is still a view that 1500 hours is not required under certain conditions, but not necessarily available to all. I’m not a regulator, but one could make an argument that one could learn the required skills found in aviation college programs or military training in other ways than repetitive flying, such as flying banners or watching a student pilot do their 10th touch and go of the day.

  27. I am a Part 121 airline pilot instructor. 1st: stick to what you know best…finding deals, etc. Keep your opinions about things you know very little about to yourself. 2nd: I agree with #FRTDOG, even with an ATP, it is the EXPERIENCE that counts! While a low time pilot might be a super hot pilot, the experience is what they lack. In an emergency, the captain would be “by himself” with a low time, low experienced pilot. Sure, that low time can fly the hell out of a jet but the experience of “I don’t think so!” hasn’t been formulated in their brains. Developing that mindset takes time and…wait for it…EXPERIENCE. In my 23 years of Part 121 instructing, most of my “troubles” have been with low time pilots who, “I don’t need to know that because I have my brand new ATP. I am invincible” attitude. There’s an old adage that the most dangerous pilot is a private pilot with about 250 hours under the belt. The safest? A brand new private pilot.

  28. You don’t have a clue Gary. The 1500 hour rule isn’t even that big of a hurdle. If one is motivated you could start from zero and get the requisite EXPERIENCE in 3-4 years. Is that really such a high bar to ask, for the responsibility we entrust in these professional pilots? You want experience not just for developing the skills and the precessional knowledge base – but for judgement. Pilots need to make those mistakes that develop judgement – before they start flying dozens or hundreds of people.

  29. @Heikki – 3 to 4 years of your life, right, ‘no big deal’ … and it’s not free for most. The cost in time and money *is the point*, ALPA wanted it to make it tough to become a pilot, so they’d have negotiating leverage. It worked.

  30. Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    There is only one pilot shortage solution that creates instant relief .. raise the mandatory age 65 pilot retirement or eliminate this discriminatory age policy all-together and demand Congress bases a pilot’s retirement on their individual medical/cognitive ability .. just like Canada, Australia and New Zealand!
The pilot unions selfishly are selling a misleading and false “Safety” opposition to raising the age so they can maintain the pilot shortage for their open contract negotiations.
There is no data supporting this “Safety” lie!
Just ask the 9 countries in the world and those companies that retired airline pilots fly for after 65!

  31. Raise the pilot age to curtail shortage and eliminate the discriminatory mandated age. It will help reduce the shortage and keep Experienced pilots flying. 1500 hrs. is the minimum for ATP Standards but in no way does that mean that all are ready for high performance jet aircraft. Certain pilot unions are not telling the entire story. FYI There are ZERO Fatal accidents involving pilots above the age of 60 for FAA Part 121 operations in the last 10 years. FAA’s Chief Medical cardiologist says pass the Let Experienced Pilots Fly act as there is no data to restrict pilots to continue flying past the age 65 rule. In fact. What would the pilot unions want raising the retirement age or hire foreign pilots.

  32. @Gary: 3-4 years? How long does it take to obtain a college degree? No one whines about that.

    What you have not done is provide your opinion on what standard the FAA should instead impose.

  33. The age 65 rule is a bit of a moot issue. Most pilots are not able to hold a first class medical by the time they reach 65.

    The 1500 hour rule, as was stated above, was a result of the Colgan crash in Buffalo. That rule was pushed by Congress. There are pilots with 500 hours that are better and more qualified than many pilots with 1500 hours. HOWEVER, the vast majority of pilots that have 1500 hours are far safer and more capable than those with 500.

    The rule isn’t perfect, but it absolutely adds a margin of safety. It would also be helpful to increase the time required for multi-engine and fixed-wing operations. I worked for an operator that hired army helicopter pilots. That was a disaster. I had to report two safety violations in two legs for a guy. If I hadn’t been there, those people would have died.

    More experience will always equal safer pilots. That is a fact. The assertion in this article that it is not comes from a position of ignorance.

    And proofread before you publish. You should be embarrassed by the poor word use.

  34. More training, not less, is what is needed:

    flightaware.com/squawks/view/1/7_days/popular_new/91069/FAA_Pilots_should_be_capable_of_flying_aircraft_manually_when_needed

    Airlines hiring pilots at 250/500 hours are putting button pushers in the sky–not pilots.

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