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GAO report: Airline pilot shortage? Not clear

Associated Press
FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2011, file photo, two pilots from Cathay Pacific walk in the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong. The U.S. airline industry will need to hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years due to an expected surge in retirements of pilots reaching age 65 and increased demand for air travel, the Government Accountability Office said in the report obtained late Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)
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FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2011, file photo, two pilots from Cathay Pacific walk in the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong. The U.S. airline industry will need to hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years due to an expected surge in retirements of pilots reaching age 65 and increased demand for air travel, the Government Accountability Office said in the report obtained late Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Regional airlines report difficulty over the past year in finding enough pilots to hire, but it isn't clear whether there is a shortage of pilots, a government watchdog said in a report released Friday.

Researchers found "mixed evidence" of a shortage, said the Government Accountability Office. A key economic indicator supports the emergence of a shortage, but two other indicators suggest the opposite is true. Of three studies reviewed by the GAO that examine the issue, "two point to the large number of qualified pilots that exist, but may be working abroad, in the military, or in another occupation, as evidence that there is adequate supply," the report said.

The U.S. airline industry will need to hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years due to an expected surge in retirements of pilots reaching age 65 and increased demand for air travel, the report said.

Eleven out of 12 regional airlines failed to meet their hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year, the report said. However, no major airlines were experiencing problems finding pilots. Some airline officials did express concern that service to some cities might have to be cut back if their regional partners cannot hire enough pilots, the report said. Regional carriers account for about half of all domestic airline flights.

Major airlines generally pay significantly higher salaries than regional carriers, and frequently hire pilots from regionals. The average starting salary for first officers at regional airlines is $22,400, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

"Data indicate that a large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand, but whether such pilots are willing or available to work at wages being offered is unknown," the report said. And, the size of these pools of pilots has remained steady since 2000, the report said.

There are currently 66,000 pilots working for U.S. airlines, but there are 109,465 currently active pilots with a first class medical certificate that are licensed to fly airline passengers, the report said. Plus, there are more than 100,000 other pilots with commercial licenses that might at some point choose to pursue an airline career, the report found.

The unemployment rate for professional pilots is very low, only 2.7 percent. That would normally indicate a shortage, but there are other reasons to believe that may not be the case, according to the report. Average professional pilot salaries went down 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2012, while the number of pilots employed went up 12 percent. Both trends are inconsistent with a shortage, the report said.

Airlines used to be able to hire first officers, also called co-pilots, with as few as 250 hours of flying experience. New regulations that went into effect last year require both captains and first officers to have a minimum of 1,500 hours. Previously, only captains were required to have that much experience. There are exceptions: Pilots leaving the military only have to have 750 hours, while other pilots can obtain restricted licenses with 1,000 hours if they are university trained.

Major carriers typically hire both captains and first officers with far more than 1,500 hours of experience. But regional carriers often drop well below that when hiring entry-level first officers.

The new regulations were required under an aviation safety law Congress passed more than three years ago in response to a 2009 crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that was blamed on pilot error. All 49 people on board and a man on the ground were killed.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the first officer had been paid only about $16,000 the previous year, which was her first year at the airline. The captain was earning about $63,000. The Continental Connection flight was operated by the now-defunct regional carrier Colgan Air Inc.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that both pilots were suffering from fatigue, although the board stopped short of citing fatigue as a contributor to the crash. Neither pilot had sleep in a bed the night prior to the fatal flight.

The captain appeared to have tried to nap in a pilot lounge where sleeping was discouraged. The first officer, who lived at home with her parents, commuted across the country over night in a jump seat in order to make the fatal flight.

In congressional hearings afterward, some lawmakers questioned whether the pilots couldn't afford hotel rooms on their salaries. At the time, lawmakers said they couldn't require regional carriers to increase pilot salaries, but they hoped that by raising the minimum qualifications for entry-level pilots, airlines would be forced to pay more for greater experience.

So far, that doesn't appear to be the case. The average new pilot at 14 regional airlines is paid about $24 per hour for the first year of employment, the GAO said. Hourly wages increase for the second year of employment for first officers to about $30.

The academic education and flight training from a 4-year aviation degree program to obtain up to a commercial pilot certificate with additional ratings necessary to be hired as a pilot for commercial flying can cost well in excess of $100,000, the report said.

Pilot schools that GAO interviewed reported fewer students entering their programs resulting from concerns over the high costs of education and low entry-level pay at regional airlines.

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