The United States Pilot Shortage: How a Turboprop Crash 10 Years Ago Has Caused A Pilot Crisis

Many U.S. carriers have faced a dilemma in the last few years: a shortage of pilots. Almost every airline has been affected by this issue, but the big three American carriers (American, Delta, United) have adopted strategies to try and combat this problem.

The shortage stems from a turboprop crash in 2009. On February 12, 2009, Colgan Air flight 3407, operated by a Bombardier Q400 operating for Continental Connection, crashed on approach to Buffalo Niagra International Airport. After months of investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the cause was due to the pilots’ failure to respond properly to a stall warning. The captain pulled the plane upwards, while at the same time the first officer raised the flaps, causing a stall, killing all 49 on board and 1 person on the ground. In response to the NTSB’s findings, in 2010, the U.S. Congress passed The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act, which required more rest for pilots and, more importantly, required a minimum of 1500 flight hours before being eligible to be hired.

Since the passage of the Act, airline safety has improved significantly. The only fatal incident involving a U.S. carrier since 2009 has been when 1 person was killed last year on Southwest Flight 1380. However, there have been some negative consequences. Due to the substantial increase in hours required before hiring, it has become increasingly difficult to hire pilots, resulting in a pilot shortage. Training to be a pilot can cost up to $200,000 and take up to a decade, causing a decrease in the appeal of becoming a pilot.

The Response

The pilot shortage has hurt the big three American carriers to a greater degree because more pilots are required. To address this crisis, each of the big three carriers have taken steps to help train more pilots.

United: In February 2018, United announced a career path program, in which first officer students interview with United before graduating from college, and if they are accepted, they move on to working for United Express, flying for CommutAir, Air Wisconsin, or ExpressJet. It will likely take 5 to 7 years before a pilot is flying for the United mainline.

American: In April 2018, American announced the American Airlines Cadet Program, in which trainees fly for some of American Airlines’ regional subsidiaries. American does not partner with universities, rather, it is partnering solely with flight schools. To help reduce the costs of pilot training, it has partnered with Discover Card to provide appealing loans for trainees.

Delta: In July 2018, Delta Airlines announced Delta Propel, which created an accelerated path to becoming a pilot through a partnership with eight universities. Students in Delta Propel are mentored by Delta pilots, and, once they receive the hours needed for a license, they can work with Delta Private Jets, a Delta regional carrier, or the Air National Guard. After at most 3.5 years flying with one of these options, they will be able to pilot Delta mainline flights.

The number of pilots needed is constantly increasing as airlines keep growing. The big three will have to continue these programs to be able to expand further.

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