« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published December 06 2013

Pilot shortage grounds flights in small markets; airlines blame new regulations

GRAND FORKS – New federal rules on pilot qualifications have cut down commercial passenger air service in some smaller cities in recent months.

In Devils Lake, for example, Great Lakes Airlines canceled 35 of its 90 regularly scheduled flights in November.

“Great Lakes was supposed to be providing three flights a day,” Mayor Dick Johnson said this week. “That was sporadic, at best.”

Great Lakes is the only commercial passenger airline service that serves Devils Lake.

Travelers have experienced similar problems at smaller airports all over the region and country since August. That’s when new federal regulations took effect that require first officers – also referred to as co-pilots – to log 1,500 flight hours, rather than the previous 250 hours, and pass the Air Transport Pilot exam before they can work for commercial airlines.

The rule is part of the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 in response to a 2009 plane crash that killed 50 people in Buffalo, N.Y.

“It was more than just pilot certification,” said Kent Lovelace, chairman of the University of North Dakota’s aviation department. It also established new training requirements, crew rest rules and other safety measures.

What it meant, in practical terms, was that pilots with fewer than 1,500 flight hours were grounded until they meet the new requirements.

Officials at Great Lakes Airlines, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., declined to comment this week on the pilot training issue.

Great Lakes also serves Thief River Falls, Minn., which also has experienced flight cancellations over the past three months.

“They were canceling flights ahead of time, by several days in some cases, because they didn’t have the crew to do it anymore,” Thief River Falls Regional Airport Manager Joe Hedrick said.

Industry problem

The pilot certification issue is just part of a broader problem of pilot shortages facing the airline industry. Aging population and an increasing number of non-U.S. citizens becoming commercial pilots also are issues that need to be addressed, according to Lovelace.

A study done in 2012 by UND’s Aviation Department shows that while the U.S. airline industry is expected to hire more than 95,000 pilots over the next 20 years, it still faces a potential pilot shortage of about 35,000 by 2030.

The nation’s major airlines as a group employ about 54,000 pilots. About 45,000 of them will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 by 2030 or 2031, the study showed.

“So, what we have is an aging population of pilots,” Lovelace said. “The average age is 49.9, and it’s trending up.”

In addition, 45 percent of the 8,600 commercial pilot licenses issued in 2012 in the United States went to non-U.S. citizens.

“Many (if not most) of these foreign pilots have no intention of working as an airline pilot in the United States,” the authors said in the report.

Program tweaking

Even before the new rules that increase the requirements for pilots to fly for commercial airline carriers took effect, UND and other aviation schools were working with the federal government to address the regulations.

What resulted was the development of a restricted ATP, which reduced the flight time requirements from 1,500 hours to 1,000 or even less – for first officers only – for students who are enrolled and meet criteria in certain degree programs. It also included military veterans.

UND was the first school to be certified to grant the restricted ATP, according to Lovelace.

UND’s aviation program currently has about 1,300 undergraduates, including 55 percent, or about 700, who are professional flight majors.

Lovelace said it’s possible some students ultimately will decide not to pursue professional commercial airline pilot careers because of the increasing regulations.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “It may be that a young person sees this as another hurdle, that it might drive some to move to other programs. But ultimately, we don’t know what effect this rule will have on pilot numbers.”