Pandemic slowdown spurs the biggest hiring push for airline pilots in decades
September 24, 2021
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  • U.S. airlines will need to hire at least 7,000 new pilots next year to fill the gaps created by retiring baby boomers and pandemic buyouts.

    The airline industry is in its biggest hiring push in decades, not only for front-line employees such as gate and ramp agents but for high-skilled workers such as pilots that need years of expensive training before they can start work, said Louis Smith, CEO of Future and Active Pilot Advisors, a pilot training and recruiting consulting group.

    Airlines already struggled over the summer with a lack of pilots and other crew members after weather and technical issues resulted in thousands of delays and cancellations. And that was with most airlines flying at schedules that were only about 80% as large as what they operated in 2019.

    The stop-and-go nature of this pandemic has created a whipsaw in the pilot training world, Smith said, with students quitting flight school and then rushing back in recent months. Airlines, including the regional airlines owned by Fort Worth-based American, have started offering bonus packages of up to $150,000.

    “The cargo business is growing, too, although they don’t have the attrition that big airlines had because they never furloughed or asked for buyouts,” Smith said. “COVID made cargo take off, and that’s just a growth business.”

    St. Louis-based FAPA is hosting a job fair for pilots in Irving on Saturday that will include recruiters from most of the large regional airlines. Major airlines such as American Airlines are also sending executives, hoping to give a push to future pilots. Regional pilots are the main source of pilots for the largest airlines such as American and Southwest.

    American Airlines said it plans to hire 1,000 aviators next year after recruiting 350 by the end of this year.

    Airlines are in desperate need of pilots because of a glut of coming retirees. American Airlines alone is expecting 585 pilots to hit the required retirement age of 65 next year, and retirements should peak in 2025 at 908 pilots.

    Airlines have pushed harder to get new pilots because the high cost of training, which is usually more than $100,000 for private schools, has created problems for prospective students. Regional airlines have pushed up pay and created pipeline programs to help cover the cost of some school. Starting pilots at regionals owned by American Airlines now make more than $50 an hour, three times as much as they did a decade ago.

    The FAA requires commercial airline pilots to log 1,500 hours of flight time for certification on top of other training, or 1,000 hours for prospective pilots who get a bachelor’s degree in an aviation field.