A pilot shortage is wreaking havoc on air travel. Here are some remedies.

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K.yle Buffelli faces one of the pilots’ most feared scenarios: an engine fire. Amid billowing animated smoke, a computerized instructor calmly guides his Buffelli through a checklist displayed in his virtual reality headset.

Created by Prescott, Arizona-based True Course Simulations, the immersive training device is designed to teach students the basics of flight procedures so they feel comfortable on board a real airplane.

“After about four or five missions, the students basically say to the instructor, ‘OK, I don’t need you anymore,’ so the instructor can focus on students who have specific problems with specific steps.” says Ray Bédard. , TCS founder says forbes.

For an industry with a shortage of flight instructors, this is a potentially intriguing prospect, as major airlines are hiring as many pilots as possible to address the debilitating shortage.

According to consulting firm Oliver Wyman, North American airlines are short of about 17,000 pilots this year after laying off staff at the worst of the pandemic by ordering early retirements for some staff.

Airlines have compensated by cutting flights to smaller cities served by regional airlines that have lost hundreds of pilots to major carriers. There were 324 US airports in January 2020, or 76% of the total. About a dozen smaller airports, including Williamsport, Pennsylvania, are completely out of service.

Major U.S. airlines hired a record 13,128 pilots last year, according to consultancy Future & Active Pilot Advisors. The all-time high he had in 2021 was 5,426. But it’s not enough as the wave of baby boomers head into retirement and older members of Generation X aren’t far behind. Nearly half of US airline pilots are over the age of 50, and retirement age is 65.

Oliver Wyman predicts that the gap between supply and demand will widen to 24,000 pilots in 2026.

One of the proposed remedies, lacking political support, would be to relax the requirement that pilots earn 1,500 flight hours to be eligible to work with scheduled airlines. Ken Burns, director of flight training programs at his campus at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, said:

However, there are developments that could help narrow the gap, such as new training techniques that promise improved proficiency and lower dropout rates. Efforts to improve student funding. A more rigorous student screening procedure can ensure that marginal candidates do not occupy her limited training resources.

Expanding training capacity. One of the roots of the pilot shortage is the sharp drop in training and hiring after 9/11 reduced demand. There are now about 1,600 private flight schools in the United States, down from about 2,400 before 9/11, said Bob Lockmaker, director of the Flight Schools Association of North America (FSANA).

However, as the demand for travel returned as the pandemic subsided, many schools expanded and salaries increased significantly, boosting career interest. At the end of the year, there were a total of 280,582 non-expiring student pilot certificates, an increase of about 60,000 from 2020.

Over the past two years, ATP, the largest private flight school chain in the United States, increased enrollment by almost 50% to 2,500 students and opened 28 new locations to over 80. New Jersey’s Infinity Flight Group, the largest aviation school in the Northeast, is expected to double its enrollment to his 500 in the next 12 to 18 months.

College flight programs are also growing, Burns says. Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach flight program has his 1,400 students using 103 planes, up from his 800 students and his 52 trainers a decade ago. Enrollment in the flight program at the Prescott, Arizona school has nearly doubled over the past eight years to 857 students.

With a surge in applicants, the University of Oklahoma last year announced a $30 million plan to expand its flight program from 250 students to 600.

Airlines have played a more direct role in training new pilots. Last month, United Airlines graduated the first class of his 51 cadet pilots from the company’s Aviation Academy in Goodyear, Arizona. It is the first flight school in the United States owned by a major airline. In Denver, United is building his $100 million training center with 12 full flight his simulators. We plan to recruit about 10,000 new pilots by the end of 2030. The airline currently has 12,000 pilots. Delta Air Lines announced last month that it will open a flight school in Florida run by UK-based Skyborne. Other airlines have partnered with flight schools such as Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier and American Airlines.

But growth is limited by a shortage of planes and certified flight instructors. Coaching was the primary way for aspiring airline pilots to meet the FAA’s 1,500 flight hours requirement, but some companies, like charter companies and his NetJets, have lower flight hour requirements. Jet owning companies employ them.

A new type of training machine. The order books of Piper Aircraft and Textron’s, the largest manufacturers of small trainers, are full.
Cessna. Those who order today won’t get their planes until late 2025 or 2026, depending on the model. The new Cessna 172 has gone up in price from his $369,000 in 2018 to $477,000 now. Prices for used aircraft are also rising. “The plane you bought five years ago is worth more than when you bought it,” said Gregory Legion, owner of his group at Infiniti Flight. forbes.

The FAA could increase the number of aircraft suitable for training if it considered a rule change for cheaper light sport aircraft over the long term that would increase the maximum allowable gross weight of 1,320 pounds. With two passengers on board, he has very little room for fuel, so he is currently at his limit as a trainer.

Due to the low weight of the plane, John said, it was not built to withstand large impacts, making it less attractive to large flight schools. But smaller flight schools with limited budgets are more interested, he says. This could reduce demand for traditional trainers and benefit large schools.

New technology. Adoption of virtual reality training tools by private flight schools will be restricted until the FAA determines that time spent using them counts towards the required minimum flight time.

But they’re starting to become popular in colleges and high schools.After reaching 1,200 enrollments two years ago for flight training at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona campus, 200 more are using VR. of students could be added. His four-week introductory course, based on multiple virtual reality systems, allows students to learn before sitting in a real cockpit. They practice pre-flight checks in a virtual Cessna 172, master the arcane language of communicating with air traffic control using AI tools to modify them, and learn the basics of flying in an interactive VR flight simulator from True Course Simulations. Learn.

On average, students get to their first solo flight 22% faster, Barnes said.

TCS’ VR flight simulator costs $39,000 for a unit, and training on the device takes about five hours less than flying with an instructor on a real plane. Professor of Embry Riddle.

The company’s simulators are also used at the United States Air Force Academy. Bedard said he was allowed to conduct introductory training for the piston-engined Cirrus SR20 and his T-6 jet trainer at a ratio of one instructor to eight students.

Better financial support. Private flight schools have an 80% dropout rate. One of the main reasons is that students have run out of money. A commercial pilot’s training course can cost him as much as $100,000, and the vast majority of flight schools are not eligible for federal student assistance. Many aspiring pilots from low-income backgrounds do not have the credit scores to obtain private loans.

To take advantage of federal assistance, the flight school association, FSANA, has established an organization to develop accreditation standards for flight schools. Aircraft rental fees aren’t currently covered, but FSANA’s Rockmaker believes federal student loans or grants could cover $35,000 to $50,000.

Some are asking Congress to take away some of the tab with a grant. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) introduced a bill last month that would pay for military veterans to be trained to become commercial pilots. bottom.

Airlines have started subsidizing training. Delta Air Lines is offering scholarships of up to $20,000 to upcoming pilots at his academy, and will also cover the cost of interest from certain lenders. American Airlines partners with employee credit unions to offer low-interest loans.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, some US airlines fully paid for training. Skyborne CEO Lee Woodward believes the practice is likely to make a comeback.

“My guess is that one or two of the major US airlines will be full sponsors again before the end of the year,” he says.

Relax standards in a way that doesn’t affect quality. Delta and FedEx were the last big companies to stipulate that pilots must have a college degree. Southwest Airlines said in February it would hire pilots with 1,000 hours to 500 hours of experience flying turbine-powered aircraft.

Background check black marks like speeding tickets no longer disqualify candidates. Tyler Tenbrink, head of training for Piedmont Airlines, a regional airline owned by American Airlines, said airlines are becoming more understanding of training setbacks. “These may have been harmful to him five years ago, but they aren’t anymore,” he says. forbes.

More selectivity. In Europe, flight school applicants go through a rigorous selection process before admission. The result is a washout rate of just 2% to 3%, says Woodward. In the United States, it is normal to be happy to fly if you have the money. Given the current high demand and limited resources in the United States, Skyborne sought to bring the first screenings to this side of the pond.

That first attempt was difficult. After he acquired the Florida school from FlightSafety International in 2021, Skyborne found the selection process intimidating potential students. Privately he earned his pilot’s license and returned to running the process for students who were looking to qualify for the partner airline’s Pathway program. However, the schools we will establish in partnership with Delta will follow a rigorous European selection process.

“If the supply of certified flight instructors in the U.S. is constant and never makes it through the program, or if we are wasting them on candidates who have no competence or aptitude, we will not use that resource. It’s a very inefficient method,” says Ed Davidson, managing director of Skyborne’s Florida School.

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