Pilots Union Goal: Make Sure There’s A Pilot Shortage, Keep People From Becoming Pilots

The government makes it difficult to become a pilot. And the government pushes pilots out while they’re still able to work. This is done in the name of safety, but has little to do with safety.

Instead it is rent-seeking by pilots unions who want to limit the number of pilots. And they want to limit the ability of airlines to fill pilot jobs quickly. Both of those give them tremendous leverage in contract negotiations with airlines. When there aren’t enough pilots, pilots earn more money.

One pilot, under the guise of anonymity, is saying the quiet part out loud.

[L]imiting supply is key to maintaining job security and high pay. Look what happened to lawyers and dentists – every law school and dental school started pumping them out and now their pay isn’t what it used be.

So whatever bottleneck is creating this shortage for the pilots (the 1500hr rule & high cost of entrance…etc) we need to KEEP IT. Actually, go further do our best to make the entrance even HIGHER is what they recommend. You do not want fresh new labor flooding the market easily by lowering standards.

I understand that unions are well aware of this and they are against lowering the barrier.

When there are fewer pilots, there are fewer flight. It means less service to small cities, and it means higher fares. It also means that it’s harder to start a new airline – especially one with a new business model. So we get stasis in the airline industry. I love that my pilot friends make more money, but it’s far from socially optimal.

To be clear, barriers to becoming a pilot aren’t needed, and aren’t about safety.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    We should lift the 1500 hour rule and ensure there’s focused training standards instead. Other countries are fine with 250 hours. It’s not spending time in the cockpit, where pilots in search of hours often pick up bad habits. It’s what they’re doing and learning and how well they do during their flight time that should matter.

    And we should focus on pilot health checks, which mean there’s no reason for a specific mandatory retirement age. Many pilots, flying 80 hours a month and building a side business along he way, would still choose to retire. Others would keep flying – especially if offered enough money to make it worth their while. Remember that under union contracts the last years of a career are the best earning ones.

    (HT: @crucker)

  • 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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    1. I strongly disagree Gary. While I agree the 1500 hours rule doesn’t make a pilot better, especially if it is low quality C172 time, but it does give him some more experience. More experience in teaching other, watching others do mistakes, teaching others etc.

      Moreover, lowering that bar to 250 hours would just do one thing – captains that will not let FO fly the plane. Have them sit on the right side for hundreds of hours while just monitoring, and, of course, lower pay and lower quality of the pilots sitting in the cockpit.

      You forget to mention that Part 135 rules allow 250 hours pilots, and they do get hired, let it be with JSX , Southern Airways Express, Boutique Air and much more 135 operators around the country. That is the path that should be adopted before going into a jet flying over 100 people, and this is actually working out quite well. Please, share that part of the story as well, and not only 1500 hours for Part 121.

    2. So how come this rule that has been in place for quite some time now, has not been a problem up until now? Could it have anything to do with human resource (mis)management on behalf of the airlines? It would appears the rules need to be modified due to the airlines using their govt. handouts to pay pilots to retire early.

    3. There are capacity limits to training neurosurgeons but not family medicine. Family medicine has competition from nurse practitioners. On the other hand, airline pilots cannot be replaced by flight attendants like family medicine doctors.

      Neurosurgeon numbers can be limited but the government can and does cut payment in Medicare then private insurance cut it because they link their payment to Medicare.

      The federal government controls residency funding and has wanted to increase primary care, like family medicine. They contribute to the problem.

    4. Let’s be clear that pilot unions do not control the supply of pilots. They can want whatever they want but the FAA licenses pilots and also licenses flight schools.
      There is no reason to believe that the pilot unions (there isn’t just one) will succeed at limiting the supply of pilots.

      The biggest reason why there have been few young people that want to fly is because training is expensive unless you come out of the military – and going into the military is no guarantee that they will train you to fly.
      Factor in historically low salaries for regional jet pilots which is a major source of pilots for the major airlines, and the economics have just not been favorable.

      Carriers like American are going all in on maintaining their regional carrier size but will pay very highly for that size – and will probably lose money – and lots of it – trying to operate regional jets which other carriers recognize cannot be economically operated at current pilot costs.

      And then you have QOL issues which all operational airline employees face; when people can make $200k per year in other fields, there is little reason to choose aviation unless you just really love it.

      The high salaries for regional and fractional/corporate pilots will bring in pilots that could not previously justify the training expense.

    5. Lawyers beget lawsuits, generating more demand for lawyers, so do not need supply constraints to generate higher income.

      Biggest problem is the shortage of doctors- more pilots mean more flights to more suboptimal locations, more congestion at airports. High prices for pilots will drive more automation, which is cheaper and probably safer.

      The high cost of doctors in the US is a huge problem. I have 6 clinics within a 5 minute walk of my house in Singapore. They all cost around $20 for a visit, and are typically staffed by foreign doctors. Nurse practitioners are not an alternative because they cannot open their own practice.

      While I would not want to be treated there for a brain tumor, they do a good job of diagnosing and treating the bread and butter of medical services- vaccinations, pink eye, skin disorders, etc. One even figured out I had dengue and sent me to the hospital to do the confirmation test and follow-up treatment. An open market for medical services is one of the biggest factors in Singapore spending 4% of GDP on medical (vs 18% in the US), and receiving statistically a better outcome.

    6. This is a poorly written article, I have to excpect nothing more from this site. Gary.. How do you know how the 1500 rule impacts actual safety or not? Please share all your research…

    7. It just looks creepy to a civilian on the outside: wow, I get 1500 hours in a go cart (Cessna-which costs me $80,000) and then I’m ready for NASCAR (737 Jets)?
      Is this a crazy world or what?
      Can’t wait for AI to make arrogant selfish pilots irrelevant…..

    8. JorgeGeorge: One thing many people do not understand is its not about the type of equipment you are flying. What makes an airman an experienced one that you want up there is time in the sky. You want pilots who have had more and more Aeronautical Decision Making.
      Look… I get it.. people think if they do it in Europe..let’s do it here. I think that is the wrong attitude. No, It may not have changed the Colgan air crash, but it absolutely has helped CRM in other cases and kept the skies safer. Aviation in America has been the safest in the world. BOTH pilots up front are ATP certified and type rated. If flying 1500 in your lawn mowers as you call them cannot translate to success… you will not make it through training at your first regional. If you have many failures in the simulators… you will not continue and your Part 121 career is probably over. The system we have to get pilots from General Aviation to airline flying is working incredibly well and resulting in safer skies. I am happy I got the experiences I did in that extra 1,000 hours. Made me a better pilot and better leader on the flight deck.

      Shame on anyone who wants pilots with less experience.. be careful what you ask for. There are some fair hour reductions for those who went through more formalized flight training or military.

    9. History repeating itself?
      During the stock market crash in 2008 the FAA raised the retirement age to 65 which then stagnated the industry with too many pilots for 5-8 years. Do we really think lowering safety standards (more flight time = more experience, usually correlates to better performance) plus raising the retirement age is the best firehose solution to the pilot shortage?

      This generation is getting loans forgiven left and right. My $90k part 61 training wasn’t subsidized or forgiven… why not payback my loans, or at least make public loans available for trade schools like truck driving and pilot licenses in the future?

      A flood of employees is no good in an industry wholly reliant on seniority rather than performance for pay and QOL. Not to mention quality of some of the new prospective pilots. On some forums over the past 5 years I’ve noticed a big increase in questions regarding “I have multiple arrests, or decently serious criminal history , can I be a pilot?”. Is that who we want in charge of 250k lbs flying gas can over our houses? Do I think you need a 4.0 or a degree to fly, no. But a history of sound judgment should be a good baseline.
      Food for thought.

    10. I love how the entire article’s basis is a post from reddit from a guy who has a few high school friends who are pilots. He didn’t take the time to reach out to any union or airline to see what their actual stance was on the issue. For the record, ALPA has an entire national committee whose sole responsibility it is to promote aviation and encourage the next generation of pilots to go to training.

      I can’t believe we are having the discussion that requiring pilots have 2 years piloting experience before stepping into the flight deck of a multimillion dollar aircraft hundreds of people in the back as too onerous.

      As a final though, let me reach into the future where 250 hour pilots can become airline pilots. The vast majority of flight instructors in schools today are, you guessed it, building time until they go to an airline. You want to talk about pilot shortages? Imagine what happens where there is no one left to train the pilots. What do you do then?

    11. Well put Chris. @Gary is a travel blogger not an industry expert at all. I hate when media pours garbage out for the public when they have no understanding of the industry.

    12. @SMR – insult me all you want but – your choice to mood affiliate aside – @Chris’ comment is hardly insightful.

      “A flood of employees is no good in an industry wholly reliant on seniority rather than performance for pay and QOL.” which is itself an indictment of pilots unions.

      “Do I think you need a 4.0 or a degree to fly, no. But a history of sound judgment should be a good baseline.
      Food for thought.”

      Yet it’s 1500 hours and an age under 65 that’s the criteria, the comment seems to support an argument for revamping pilot training and certification not supporting the status quo.

      “During the stock market crash in 2008 the FAA raised the retirement age to 65 which then stagnated the industry with too many pilots for 5-8 years.”

      1) too many pilots? subjective and rather silly
      2) great recession led to contraction in the industry – of course that meant fewer opportunities, as in many industries
      3) the pilot retirement age was raised to 65 with legislation signed in 2007
      4) Denmark, France, Germany, Belgium, Greece and several other countries are moving to 67 for retirement. Ireland is moving to 68.

    13. @Gary I did not insult you. Facts are facts,. You have formed your own opinions based on what you read. You are a travel blogger trying to sound off as an industry expert. You toss out the opinions of the only people commenting here that live and work in the industry day in and day out. I do not agree with everything unions do, but they are right here. They are protecting jobs and keeping aviation safer. Dumping the hour requirements and raising retirement ages at the same time is very dangerous indeed. As in very dangerous I am saying you may be increasing the chance of an incident by the tiniest of margins but it does increase. Pretty bad idea to solve a staffing issue by decreasing safety standards.

    14. @SMR – you haven’t even substantiated an argument, you’ve just thrown out slogans.

      “They are protecting jobs and keeping aviation safer.”

      They are driving higher wages through pilot scarcity and not making aviation safer. The 1500 hour rule did not make aviation safer. And that’s why Europe didn’t follow. Moreover a mere hours requirement does little to promote safety, and can reduce safety by introducing bad habits in the quest for hours.

      To the extent that limiting flight options and raising fares drives people at the margin – even a little – to alternate forms of travel, you’re reducing safety because of how much safer air travel is than commercial train travel or automobile travel.

    15. @Gary you are quite obviously not a 121 pilot. Yeah, most other countries allow pilots to operate a 777 with 250 hours. They also crash them into a seawall on a beautiful clear day, and as a result, are restricted from flying visual approaches in the US.

      1,500 hours means they have some experience actually flying airplanes outside of the training environment, and it makes a huge difference in the workload upfront. There’s the training environment, and then there’s the real world, and they’re very different.

      As far as age 65, you’ve quite obviously never flown with a pilot approaching mandatory retirement. It’s not about passing a medical so much at it is about cognition and reaction. It’s all fine when everything is going as planned. When thunderstorms are closing in, your destination is closed, your alternate is behind the storms, and you’re running out of fuel, that’s when it counts, and it happens more often than you think.

    16. The ‘pilot shortage’ is nothing more than chickens coming home to roost for greedy corporations and activist investors. Over the past 2 decades they devoted so much effort destroying and degrading the professional pilot career that fewer qualified people invested the money, time, and risk pursuing the career. NOW they need pilots – but they aren’t there. The pipelines have to be rebuild and there has to be a financial incentive to choose this career.

      So it’s time for corporations to open their wallets and pay what is requires to recruit and keep pilots. This will definitely affect the status quo. If that means less service to smallish cities and towns then that’s what the market demands. Maybe bloggers can contribute to a fund to subsidize such markets?

      Soon enough the corporate lobbying efforts will bear fruit and the current leverage enjoyed by pilots will wane. In the meantime pilots should reap hay while the sun is shining.

    17. @K – The captain of Asiana 214 at the time it impacted on final approach had 9,793 hours. The pilot in the right seat of Asiana 214 had 12,387 hours of flying, including 3220 on the 777. So tell me how the 1500 hour rule would supposedly prevent this? Both pilots were in their 40s by the way. I think you’re making my point that the specifics of training and standards in place matter far more than hours. Also cognition tests > age.

    18. It should be very hard to become a pilot, like a physician. Pilots have many lives in their hands. Don’t make it easy to become a pilot. This would invite more accidents, more lives injured or lost.

    19. This guy scoured the deeps of reddit to find an anonymous unsourced post that fit the narrative he was trying to sell and a conclusion he already came to. Love it.

      The data speaks for itself. Accidents among 121 carriers in the US have dropped since the 1500 rule and 117.

      And if you really believe there is no correlation between salary and safety, then you should also go to South America next time you need live saving surgery. Higher salaries drive higher talent into the field. Thousands of very capable pilots left the industry when pilots were making 15k per year. What you ended up with (in some cases) were pilots with 10000 hours that couldn’t do anything else with their lives and were maybe C+ aviators at best. Tons of amazing pilots stuck it out and are still flying today, but there’s a reason virtually every American pilot I’ve met that went overseas to work has come back. They will tell you that the talent and education of pilots in Europe and Asia that will work for peanuts is just scary.

      Higher wages almost universally drive recruitment of top tier talent, and ensure that top tier kids are interested in joining the industry.

      Unions have been pushing for and supporting better paths for bringing kids into the industry, not keeping them out.

      And retirement age…. You have clearly never received a first class medical exam.. look it up… Ask around….. It’s not the intensive litany of tests you think it is. And if your argument is that raising retirement age drives down salaries, you’re out of your mind. When a $400k captain retires, they replace him/her with a $200k captain upgrade, and they replace him with a $100k first officer.

    20. @Gary – Safety is a culture. You cannot take isolated incidents (even Colgan air which I agree, hours was not the issue) and compare them to safety as a whole. All major airlines use something called AQP to train pilots to look for trends in pilot behavior to tailor recurrent training to pilot needs. Using Asiana as an example is pretty awful considering how different CRM is on that side of the world. As far as retirement age goes… I have flown with pilots nearing retirement that have so much wisdom and yes they are highly skilled but many of them (not all) are much slower to respond and react to things happening around us. It is not their fault, it is normal that as humans at age 65, a high majority of people are no longer processing information as fast. Since you do not have experience flying with them, you do not know what you are talking about. The sharpest pilots I fly with that are nearing retirement talk about how they will retire at 65 regardless of the rule change. Pilots nearing 65 who I worry about are the ones talking about wanting to fly forever…that is just how it goes. there are non-121 jobs they can still get.

      As far as the 1500 hours… I do not know how to help you or the general public fully understand the scope of how important they are. 500 hours is very little time to be exposed to the sky. I do not care what aircraft , being in the in environment alone is a well worthwhile experience. During those 1500 there are other requirements that must be met to be ATP eligible. Here are a just a few things I remember from my 500-1500 journey.

      *Dealt with a very bad birdstrike, putting a hole in the canopy of the aircraft.
      *flew survey missions all over the country, learning how to operate in the busiest airspaces and high terrain prior to being an airline pilot (this helps a ton)
      *Taught 8 people from 0 hours to license (extremely valuable for leadership and CRM, communication skills)

      You really want all these 23 year olds with no college and no similar work experience to jump in the jet at 250-500 hours? What happens if the 68 year old captain becomes incapacitated ? we are supposed to mitigate risk the best we can and make decisions that keep it as low as possible. We actually have it figured out right now…its working…very well. Why change it? the answer ..airlines are lazy and figure they can save on contract negotiations by having more candidates in the pool. NOT A GOOD REASON to lower requirements. And by the wya..Europe does not have as good a safety record as the US and they have different kind of flying… let’s not compare apples to oranges.

    21. The FAA just denied Republic Airways’ request for a reduction in the number of hours required to fly commercial aircraft from 1500 to 750 hours other than for former military aviators or graduates of an FAA accredited university flight training program.

    22. I disagree. The 1500 rule is arbitrary, yes. And the total experience level of the ATP candidate varies wildly from case to case in how they built their time. But it is not good having 250 hour wonders in the right seat of a jet. It’s essentially a single pilot operation in any non-normal situation. You can put your wife and kids on that ride, I’ll pass.

    23. This article has so many fallacies ….It is so full of holes.

      Who wants their cross country bus tour with someone who got their license last week, as opposed to someone who have been driving for 10 years???

      Same is true for flying. Get real

    24. Gary,
      the FAA said “no”
      There was nowhere near enough appetite in Congress to change anything and those are the people that are seeing reduced air service and higher air fares.

      Move along.
      While you might be right, the people that control the process don’t agree.

    25. @Gary. I think the point is … who are you to decide this ? How do you know what it takes when you have no experience ? You’re just saying as a passenger you don’t really care how much experience your pilots have and that it’s the unions forcing us to add extra layers or safety.

    26. @SMR no that’s not what i am saying at all, i am saying pilots unions lobby for rules that restrict entry into the profession in order to exert greater bargaining leverage, and that these rules have no bearing on safety. Extra layer you sound like TSA :p

    27. @Tim Dunn – This wasn’t written because of the Republic position and the bureaucracy’s answer to it is irrelevant, my point is simply that this is a form of rent-seeking and people should know that. Perhaps there will be change later on, perhaps not, just don’t buy into the reasoning offered by ALPA

    28. 1500 hours is arbitrary, it might be useful or depending on how the hours were gained it could be meaningless.
      I was, in 1980, that zero hour cadet, 40 years later I finished by teaching and examining the a320 to zero hour cadets. Along the way I think I taught line flying to every possible combination of backgrounds. I also ran command courses line and simulator for pilots with all sorts of backgrounds.
      The lesson learned, attitude is all. Almost all cadets had it, most ex military did, hour builders were a mixture. If the hours don’t teach discipline and attention to detail they mean nothing.
      The best protection for the public? Airlines that select careful and then train and monitor to the highest standard. Pay well, retain and encourage talent. Of course all that costs money and hits profit.

    29. The model of “deregulated” pilot requirements can be found in many African countries.

      No thanks.

      The biggest airline-related government mistake of 2020-21 was to give in to their demands of getting obnoxious amount of taxpayer subsidies. Now they’re back at it; to give in to this demand would be far worse as real lives, not just gazillion of dollars, will be lost.

      Keep the 1500 hour rule and let the airlines simmer in their self-made pool of excrement: then you all along about the issue, which has been discussed at nauseam in pilot forums, and they invested exactly zero to prevent it. The core of capitalism is that actions have consequences, socialism is the government intervention. We need less socialism, not more!!!

    30. The FAA indicated that it sees no reason to change the requirement either for Republic or anyone else. They specifically cited precedent as a reason for denying Republic.

      ALPA had nothing to do with the FAA’s decision although they objected to Republic’s request.

      The FAA did not believe Republic’s proposal was in the best interest of public safety.

      Again, the people who govern the issue said “no,” don’t intend to change anything, and gave a pretty good idea that their rule isn’t going to be changed in other circumstances.

    31. @ Gary Leff

      “…@SMR – you haven’t even substantiated an argument, you’ve just thrown out slogans…”

      But Gary, that very accusation applies to you and your article!

      You have failed to present ANY substantive evidence whatsoever to back your assertions.

      Clue – some anonymous dude’s social media post does not constitute evidence, even if conveniently aligning with your personal perceptions on a topic!

      Nor do vaguely ascribed correlations between events.

      Surely, good debating skills include citing evidence in preference to personal opinion?

      Hypocritical drivel.

    32. Gary’s not a pilot and has no clue what flying a plane is like. But he’ll argue until the cows come home that he knows that we’d be better off if airline pilots were less experienced.

      Even with the 1500-hour rule, the number one cause of airline accidents is, wait for it — PILOT ERROR. Saying that safety would not suffer by putting less experienced pilots in the cockpit of airline flights with hundreds of passengers would be a joke if it weren’t such a serious topic.

      Flying a plane ain’t like sitting in an office working on spread sheets or blog posts. When stuff goes wrong in an airplane it can be scary, very scary. There is often no time to run checklists and consult flight manuals. Classroom training and check rides are poor, artificial substitutes for skills, knowledge, and confidence gained from experience.

      Regarding older pilots, without a mandatory retirement rule, to fire an older pilot who an airline believes is unsafe, the airline would have to prove that pilot is unqualified to fly. That can be very hard to do. Gary has not identified any method for doing so. Check rides won’t cut it. Even if they did, they could only identify problems after the unqualified pilot had been flying passengers. Gary uses Harrison Ford as the poster child for the dangers of letting older people fly airplanes.

      This argument is a purely academic as the FAA isn’t going to change the rules to save the airlines from the problems they created by mismanaging their workforce.

    33. Ok, for those who believe these rules have to do with safety, answer these simple questions:
      1. Why did the FAA wait until the Colgate crash to change the rules (that’s right, from the dawn of commercial aviation until the crash, there was no requirement for 1500 hours).

      2. Name a documented incident involving/caused by a low time pilot. (The Colgate crash involved high time, but tired and incompetent pilots).

      3. If low time pilots are the issue, why does the FAA allow foreign flagged carriers to fly into the US with low time pilots. The FAA has banned other airlines from landing in the states (and pilots). Why not bsn these carriers from arriving?

      4. Why does no other country have the same restrictions? The EU has a safety record that matches the US.

      5. How does claiming 1500 hours in a 152 or 172 prepare a pilot for the line, especially flight instructing in a puddle-jumper? Where is the CRM and turbine time?

      If pilot age is so important, why do we allow a pilot graduate downward, from a two pilot craft with all the resources to a single pilot operation in the same airspace.

      As a GA pilot, I see this as the FAA bureaucracy looking for a problem to solve a solution.

    34. This article is ridiculous. Obviously sponsored or simply gaslighting for clicks. Spouts lots of opinions without foundation.

    35. 》》》I’ll stick to sims, thanks – not looking to do the 1500 hours or make less money thanks《《《

      And that’s my point exactly. @Gary realizes he is financially better off blogging about flying than he would be if he actually bore the responsibility for the lives of real people.

      @Gary I’m not quite sure if you’re shilling for airline management or just dislike pilots and pilot unions?

    36. @Chris Rose – I have many friends who are pilots! I think it’s important to point out, though, how ALPA is using the veil of safety to get laws passed which restrict entry into the profession in order to create an artificial scarcity of pilots and drive up wages, to the detriment of *passengers*.

      Occupational licensing is a huge problem of rent seeking in the United States, hardly or even mostly limited to pilots. It’s making us all poorer.

    37. Lol! That is so wrong headed. How about the airlines solve the problem by creating a training pipeline? The airlines have been spoiled by decades of militarily trained pilots. Now that the military isn’t supplying pots like they used too, they are saying there is a pilot shortage. United took the first step in buying a flight school. There are solutions to the problems. The airlines just want the cheap solutions.

    38. Here’s the part I don’t get, Gary. I never heard of a union–and I belong to one of them and have been a shop steward at two others–who wants to have fewer members. There is always strength in numbers.
      You can make that argument about the 1,500-hour rule–and to that, I’m agnostic–but you also have to wonder if there were another 1,000 mainline pilots available, how much service would the airlines have. How many planes do they have to add the service?
      The regionals are another matter–but the email from the pilot, whose banker friend calls the 90% of those pilots “incredible and scary,” should get a grip. What was scary was how little they had been getting paid for the amount of skill that’s required of them and the time and expense it took to acquire that skill. You could argue those numbers still aren’t where they should be.
      But to blame any shortage on the unions–let’s just say any union in 2022 in the U.S. would have a good chuckle when others think they had that power.

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