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Airlines Scramble to Find Enough Qualified Pilots

Five years ago, Louis Smith’s organization would put on job fairs for airline pilots and have plenty of pilots but few airlines. Now his job fairs attract plenty of airlines but need more pilots.

It’s an indication of how the airline industry has turned around over the past five years. It also underlines the growing difficulty in getting enough pilots to staff the nation’s airline cockpits.

That’s true “especially in the regional sector,” Smith said Wednesday. “That’s what changed dramatically.”

Smith, FAPA’s president, said that with the change in the industry, the pilots at the job fairs tend to be employed and are looking for a better job with more pay and better benefits. It’s not the hardships that many applicants faced in the depth of the industry’s downturn.

“It’s better dealing with people who are not laid off and just wanting to moving up in the world as opposed to people who in many cases were laid off and desperate and in financial crisis,” Smith said.

The problem remains at the regional-airline level, where starting pay for first officers tends to be not much over $20,000 and experienced pilots are jumping to join the better-paying major carriers.

“If you started a conversation five years ago with active and retired pilots from most major airlines, you would likely get a giant ‘thumbs down’ on the profession. The pay cuts and pension terminations took their toll,” he said.