Pilot Shortage at Northwest is Tip of the Iceberg

By Robert Mark on August 5th, 2007

The lesson Northwest Airlines management seems to have just re-learned is that no carrier can staff enough pilots to cope with flight-canceling job actions when cockpit crews think they’ve been wronged. Crew shortages at Northwest have forced hundreds of flight cancellations this summer. 

But those were really just a tink on the nose by flight crews focused on recapturing some of the money they gave back to the company during bankruptcy. The Tentative Agreement (TA) the union is expected to approve will offer incentive pay to crews and instructors for extra flying. It will also force the airline to hire more pilots.

They’re Doing it Again

Watching airline labor relations this year makes me think other majors like United, Delta and US Airways, will probably end up re-learning this same financial lesson too. There are other lessons the airlines seem doomed to re-learn as well.

Flight cancellations at Northwest were temporary and finding pilots for the majors is easy, despite the financial shadow the chaos of 9/11 cast on this profession. But the ready supply of seasoned aviators is running thin.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

At AirVenture last week, my friend Louis Smith and I gave a co-authored a pilot job forum. Louis is president of CyberCompass, the company that owns the Internet-based pilot information resource, FLTops.com. Louis spoke to the airline side of hiring while I spoke about corporate and charter flying. I’m focusing on FLTops.com data here because the numbers are so startling.

Smith says that all commercial operations, major airlines, regionals, charter, fractional and freight will requires a total workforce of some 68,000 pilots by 2018. By then however, the industry will lose some 52,000 to retirements and other forms of attrition. By 2018 then, we need to find about 120,000 new pilots. These numbers represent the need ONLY here in the states too.

At the regionals carriers right now, crew shortages are all too real. Some regional airline pilots don’t even show up for their scheduled new-hire class dates simply because they decided to take a better offer at the last minute.

At AirVenture last week – a show that often brings in 500,000 to 600,000 people interested in aviation – Mesa and Air Wisconsin were recruiting. Not passing out flyers mind you, but actively looking for qualified flight crew candidates, men and women they could interview on the spot. At last count, Mesa had five solid candidates six days into the show.

Some questions we need to seriously explore are why can’t regionals find enough pilots? Another is what the industry as a whole is doing to fix a problem that could well bring it to its knees in the next few years?

Critics say there are always enough people who want to fly if the money is good. And despite the fact that much of the airline industry thinks Multi-Crew licensing will solve everything, frankly I’m worried about the qualifications of some of the people we might be hiring into the right seat.

Few in the industry – airline or GA – seem particularly adept at planning for a future that will require more qualified pilots to fly the airplanes being built.

The airline industry should be talking to the general aviation/business aviation side of the industry right now because they need us to cement some of their future.

And guess what, we need them to solidify ours.

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5 Responses to “Pilot Shortage at Northwest is Tip of the Iceberg”

  1. Bill Says:

    Your statement that NWA Management “seems to have just re-learned” implies that learning took place.
    I think the proper phrase is that “Managment seems to have had this lesson shown to them again.” Whether they have learned from it this time remains to be seen. History tells us that they probably have not.
    They have surely failed to learn the lesson of actions speaking louder than words, when the words deny greedy behavior and the actions prove it.
    Speaking of greedy behaviou, just the other day the bankruptcy lawyers for NWA have “ammended” their bills upward to the tune of over 3 million dollars because the bankruptcy came out so well, and they want their cut. I have little doubt that NWA management will be tripping over themselves to pay it. Had the bankruptcy not gone well, Hell would freeze over before those same lawyers would think to reduce their fees, and to Hell is where those lawyers should be told to go.

    Next subject:
    “Some questions we need to seriously explore are why cant regionals find enough pilots? ”
    Surely you jest.
    Let’s see. Perhaps awful pay, crappy working conditions, and tyranical managment might be a few of the mysterious factors involved.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Good points here Bill.

    The airline model the way we grew up with it is broken. The regionals are simply leading the charge this time I think.

    My question is what is regional airline management working with the majors going to do to fix the problem. My guess is they’ll keep patching things.

    The regionals will eventually find people to fly. The question is how qualified are these folks? When there is an accident in which crew qualifications appear as a probable cause, all hell will break lose.

    Even on the GA side, we don’t pay flight instructors anything either. No wonder they don’t want to stay.

    But everyone can be a major airline pilot, at least not all at the same time.

  3. GeraldZ Says:

    Mesa will experience the worst attrition because they are a miserable employer. They don’t honor their contract and they treat their employees like dirt. They’ve always had a bad reputation and now that the tide has turned, it’s payback time! JO is getting what he deserves.

    Note that American Airlines also will enter negotiations with the Allied Pilots Association next year. This should be a real dogfight since the pilots took 1/3 pay cuts and for two years now management has handsomely rewarded themselves with hefty bonuses. Makes me want to throw up. Strike!

  4. Scott Says:

    Rob’s quote – Im worried about the qualifications of some of the people we might be hiring into the right seat.

    You have good reason to be worried. FO’s with 300 hours and Captain upgrades occurring at 2000 hours flying regional jets in all sorts of weather. Yikes!

    Starting pay in the neighborhood of $19000 at a regional airline. Ouch! I value my abilities and experience a LOT more than that.

    Many airliners, particularly at the majors, are not as well equipped as a new C172 or Cirrus. Why do we still see (hear on the radio) these guys needing vectors because they’re not GPS or RNAV equipped. Pathetic!

    And finally, the airlines claim it’s GA that is causing their delays and getting priority handling. I suggest the airlines take a look at their own scheduling practices. It’s akin to cramming 10 pounds of crud into a 5 pound sack. And one just needs to go into any hub airport to see who gets priority handing. The next time a corporate jet gets priority handing over an airliner will be the first.

  5. Eric Says:

    My latest AOPA mag says that the airlines will be hiring 12000 pilots this year and that the industry will be hugely hungry for pilots thru 2012. This is in the US and in Europe. The middle east airlines like Etihad are growing like crazy…so fast that they are raiding the EU for pilots. Belgium even wants laws to prevent that.

    Good times if you are a young person who wants an aviation career. Bad news for the military who wants 12 year commits to fly jets. The days of military to commercial conversion are getting more and more limited.


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