Flight Attendants & Waning Aviation Interest

By Scott Spangler on March 18th, 2012

Last weekend the New York Times published an enlightening piece—63 Years Flying, From Glamour to Days of Gray—about Ron Akana, United Airline Flight Attendant Seniority Number 1. You read that right, he’s been flying for 63 years. Hawaiian born, he was a 21-year-old in a aloha shirt when he was selected from among 400 applicants to fill eight steward positions, one for each of the Hawaiian islands. Above, he’s third from the right.

As expected, the article highlighted the differences in airline flight over his career. What was more interesting—and telling—were the demographics of the industry’s flight attendance corps. Based on his analysis of 2010 census data, University of Texas-San Antonio sociologist Rogelio Saenz revealed that 40 percent of roughly 110,000 FA’s are at least 50, if not older.

Here’s the important part: less than 18 percent of flight attendants are 34 or younger. Seniority equals employment tenure, and Mr. Akana’s service is the textbook example. But I wonder if the ability to work more years is the primary reason why their average age is increasing. In the late 1960s courts finally overturned the airline requirements that female flight attendants had to retire at 32 and quit if they got married or pregnant.

Back in the day, when people dressed up to fly, airlines served real food, and every seat offered first-class room, flying held promise of far flung adventures to romantic destinations. And those were the days when being an airline pilot was also a daydream destination of many youngsters as they looked for a career. Could the dearth of younger flight attendants be an indication related to cyclic shortages of qualified pilots to show that the industry must finally stop living in the past?

At all levels, from flight instructor to flight attendant to airline captain, the industry has relied on a bountiful supply of starry-eyed people who’ve “paid their dues” (saving the airlines millions) because they’d do anything to fly. People starting their careers today don’t possess, from what I’ve read and experienced, any real motivation to make similar sacrifices. For the foreseeable future, the airlines are going to need crews, so it will be interesting to see how the airlines will attract and train them. And as passengers, we must always remember that in every aspect of life, you get what you pay for. –Scott Spangler


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4 Responses to “Flight Attendants & Waning Aviation Interest”

  1. Nick Frisch Says:

    I keep seeing these articles about how no one wants to be in airline aviation anymore. While it might seem to be a problem, there is little discussion of how big a problem it is going to be, and how our government has ensured the demise of our once-robust aviation training industry.

    Since President Obama has signed legislation requiring that all airline pilots hold ATP certificates by August 2013, there is now a huge obstacle to becoming an airline pilot. Training builds up 250-300 hours typically. Previously If no regional was hiring, pilots could find some way to add hours (flight instruction), wait until things got better for hiring low-timers, or buy some hours.

    There is now a presumption that most of the additional hours needed to get to 1,000 for a restricted ATP or 1,500 otherwise are going to come from flight instructing. Historically, this has been a mostly reasonable assumption. Even if domestic training was slow, there have been waves of foreign pilots coming to the U.S. to train.

    However, the assumption that foreigners will continue to come to the U.S. for training is flawed. Since the launch of the ICAO-initiated MultiCrew Pilot License (MPL) program in Australia by Boeing in 2006, many countries have jumped on the MPL bandwagon, including Canada and the U.K. Because MPL is a smarter way to train airline pilots, the future is likely to be MPL.

    The FAA has chosen to ignore the MPL. Because the U.S. has historically had a robust pilot training infrastructure, there was little reason for the FAA to embrace MPL. Now there is, but the ATP legislation makes it impractical to use MPL for a U.S. airline. The only way it would make sense would be for pilots training for a foreign airline.

    The problem with this situation for America is that our very robust pilot training activities involve lots of foreigners who contribute to our balance of trade as well as fueling our domestic training schools. Right now, there are lots of foreigners to be trained, but as MPL accelerates, this training will move to Canada, Australia, the UK, or elsewhere.

    With the tide of foreign pilots receding, and flight instruction opportunities evaporating with it, we will see the domestic pilot pipeline running dry. Career changers who once flocked to local FBO flight schools will be stymied by the 1,500 hour rule. These students, along with G.I. bill students, have been the bread and butter of FBO flight schools. Without them, flight schools will wither, and many will die. College students will face a $200,000+ investment for a job that has lost its appeal. Even veterans with generous Yellow Ribbon benefits will face the hours gap that our government has thoughtfully created.

    The result of this situation is likely to be one where another proud U.S. industry, pilot training, has succumbed to foreign competition not because foreigners were better, but because we were stupid. My prediction is that in a few years, regional airlines will be pressing Congress for widespread issuance of H1B visas so those airlines can hire foreigners to fly our airplanes.

    The solution to these problems would be for Congress, the FAA, and domestic airlines to embrace an MPL model as an alternative to hours-based metrics. This could be done within a few years, and could help refill the empty airline pilot pipeline.

  2. Scott Spangler Says:

    I’ll agree that the training process for professional pilots is broken, but it is a self-inflected problem. The the government–Congress–is merely reacting to the short shrift the industry gives training and the corners many operators of schools and airlines cut.

    Being a professional pilot ceased to be an attractive career option decades before Congress imposed the first-officer ATP requirement. I’m talking the 1990s, when the people with MBAs pushed the airplane people out of airline management positions.

    But really, it was the airplane people who planted the seeds of the problems we are not reaping. Why invest in ab initio pilot training when “suckers” enraptured with flight will suffer endless debt to “pay their dues.”

    That used to work fairly well when a few pilots found the pot of gold in the left seat, but the two tier pay systems, and airline mergers, furloughs, and bankruptcies pretty well picked that pot clean before today’s pilots ever get close to it.

    On top of all this, flying is not as attractive to today’s young people as it was to those in earlier generations. The majority of today’s high school students, if they even thing about being a pilot, which they don’t, they compare it to driving the school bus that carries them to and from home every day.

    The MPL might be the answer, but being a realist, a pragmatist, and something of a pessimist, I don’t think it will happen because the old guard, as it has for more than half a centure, will fight to the death of the industry to avoid change.

    What’s really sad is this problem is pervasive, not just isolated to aviation. When facing a problem brought about by change our first reaction is to blame someone, the government, democrats, republicans, congress, the president, CEOs, whoever is handy. But rarely do we look in the mirror, accept responsiblity and realize that we do not live in a static world, suck it up, and work together to find a solution.

  3. Jamie Dodson Says:

    Posted to my Facebook page. Those were great days all right – for the rich. Because few others could afford to fly. We got the airlines we are willing to pay for. Lowest price ticket always wins …


  4. Martin Says:

    Unfortunately aviation isn’t anymore what it used to be, the glamour has long departed and not even to mention the training philosophy with the over relying on automation in the flight deck….

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