How a pilot shortage could impact consumers

The flight deck of an Airbus A380. Flying used to be a glamorous job, but today's pilots work long hours for less pay. What does a shortage of pilots in the commercial airline industry mean for the future of flying and ticket prices?

It's not just higher fuel prices at the pump that can put a dent in your wallet. Fuel prices influence the price you pay for air travel as well, but airline ticket prices may be going up in the future for another  reason -- a shortage of pilots. It seems the FAA is making it tougher to qualify for the co-pilot's job, but there's a whole bunch of reasons the industry could run into turbulence on the pilot front.   

Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly says we might face a big pilot shortage because of the merging of a few trends.

"First of all, you have a lot of pilots who began flying back after the Vietnam War all turning 65 years old and that's a particularly magic age for pilots because in the United States that's when you have to retire. Even if you still have your wits about you, you can't fly commercially any more," says Kaplan. "Then you also have new requirements that make it much more difficult to become a pilot. You need to fly a lot more practice hours before you can fly for an airline. Then on top of all that, you have lots of other airlines around the world that in the past weren't all that relevant, now growing very rapidly -- in some cases in their own desperate need of pilots [they are] willing to pay quite a lot of money for them."

Kaplan says if a pilot shortage occurs, airlines will have to pay a little bit more than they're offering right now, which will drive costs up. But he also cautions that nobody should be alarmed, paying a pilot isn't the most expensive line item cost for an airline -- that's jet fuel -- even though it is important. He says a shortage might impact price-sensitive travelers the most, like people trying to take their families on vacation.

"This will impact consumers in the same way as any other thing that airlines have to go out and buy to make it possible to fly would," he says.

Kaplan says it used to be that flying was very glamorous, but not very many people got to do it. Now flying is for the masses.

"There are people everyday around the world who get on airplanes for the first time, people who used to be barely able to afford a bus. So that's good, but the flip-side of it is that those people are price-sensitive and we all are in challenging economic times," he says.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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