Airlines wing it through pilot shortage

An Airbus test pilot sits in the cockpit of an A380 super jumbo.

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Doug Krizner: Maybe you'll be taking to the skies for the holiday. Demand for air travel has been high, And U.S. airlines have been in hiring mode to keep up. After 9/11, the industry laid off thousands, including plenty of pilots. Now, we're facing a lack of pilots. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: The big airlines are snapping up pilots who've been working for the regionals during the last few years. And that's put the regionals in a bind. Many have had to lower their minimum qualifications. Some are paying bonuses for the first time.

David Powell is a former United Airlines pilot and interim dean of Western Michigan University's College of Aviation. He says smaller airlines are finding they have to hire pilots right out of schools like his. They're even poaching his flight instructors.

David Powell: They're actually concerned about taking all of our flight instructors, because they know that is their primary pipeline. If they cripple that, then I can't produce enough pilots for 'em for the long term.

He says the public is firmly hooked on the convenience of air travel, something that seemed exotic a few decades ago.

1960's TWA ad: Welcome to the world . . . of Trans World Airlines!

Captain Paul Rice is with the Airline Pilots Association International. He says when jet travel took off in the 1960's, there was a mad scramble for pilots. The same thing is happening today as air travel expands around the world.

He says the major carriers are running out of pilots. The military is providing far fewer than it did even 20 years ago. Many pilots have quit the industry in recent years, and fewer staff hold a captain's license today than in 2001.

Paul Rice: The level of individuals that held that license prior to 9/11, we probably won't see that for another 10 to 12 years. That's a dramatic drop.

Contract negotiations are coming up at several of the big airlines.

David Field of Airline Business Magazine says pilots have given up a chunk of pay and benefits over the last few years.

David Field: That dynamic, combined with the factor that the carriers are going to have to be hiring more people, is going to have an implication for airline economics. And it does filter down eventually to what we pay.

But Captain Paul Rice says even if negotiations go well, pilots can't count on a return to the jet-set days of the 60's.

Rice: If jet fuel stays right around $100 a barrel, and the U.S. economy slows or the world economy slows, we'll be talking in six months about the pilot surplus.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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