Within the next decade, tens of thousands of veteran airline pilots and air-traffic controllers plan to retire, leaving a potential dearth...
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Within the next decade, tens of thousands of veteran airline pilots and air-traffic controllers plan to retire, leaving a potential dearth in experience that could cause airport delays and make the skies riskier, aviation experts say.
By 2015, about 25,000 pilots will retire while about 50,000 new pilots are hired, according to firms that track airline jobs. At the same time, 73 percent of the nation’s 14,934 controllers will be eligible to retire.
While the Federal Aviation Administration plans to hire 12,500 controllers by 2014, their union warns the plan will be implemented too slowly to allow adequate training. That could result in air traffic being bogged down, the union says.
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Meanwhile, the demand for pilots has become so great that fast-growing regional and low-fare carriers have eased hiring standards and are now plucking most of their first-officer candidates straight from flight schools, not the military, as in years past.
That translates to a boost in less-experienced pilots, who are not as prepared to deal with tricky situations, said Robert Breiling, an aviation accident analyst, based in Boca Raton, Fla.
“The inexperienced pilot, whoever he may be, is more accident prone than the experienced pilot,” he said.
Pilot error accounts for more than 50 percent of airline accidents.
During the past five years, airline safety has been excellent, federal statistics show. Major airlines averaged about two fatal accidents per 10 million flights since 2000. Regional carriers, with 10 to 100 seats, averaged about three accidents per 10 million. Safety overall has steadily improved because of better technology and tighter federal scrutiny.
Still, the confluence of relatively inexperienced pilots and controllers could be “potentially disruptive” in five to seven years, said Stuart Klaskin, a Miami aviation consultant.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s going to be dangerous,” he said. “But it’s one of these situations that needs to be understood now, and acted upon now.”
One way to prevent both groups from losing veterans — and jeopardizing safety — would be to increase the mandatory retirement age of both pilots and controllers, Klaskin said.
“An argument can be made that these people are being forced to retire when they’re at the peak of their experience,” he said.
Congress is considering raising the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65, but it likely will be months before the proposal is debated. Many pilots plan to retire at 60 anyway, having built up cushy pensions and benefits. Almost 30 percent of today’s senior captains and first officers are approaching the end of their careers.
Most of today’s controllers were hired after President Reagan fired 11,400 strikers in 1981, and they, too, are ready to call it quits.
Currently, air-traffic controllers must retire at age 56 because it is a job that requires quick reactions. The FAA is considering granting annual extensions to controllers who are deemed exceptional, until they reach age 61.
The FAA said it will accelerate hiring dramatically as of next year, and by 2014 should have a total of 16,500 controllers, or about 1,500 more than now.
But the agency’s plan to hire 887 by the end of this year would leave control towers and radar centers 1,300 short in two years, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said.
That is because almost 2,200 controllers will retire by 2007, and it takes at least three years for their replacements to be adequately trained, the union said.
“When it comes to safety, the numbers have to add up. Unfortunately for travelers, the FAA seems to have failed Math 101,” union President John Carr said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the airline industry has been in turmoil. Major airlines lost billions of dollars as the public at first flew tentatively, then sought lower fares on smaller carriers. That forced the largest carriers to streamline and lay off tens of thousands of employees, including pilots.
Then, as air travel rebounded, regional and low-fare carriers began to boom, taking advantage of travelers’ desire for more direct routes and cheap tickets.
Yet, despite their financial troubles, the big carriers still rule the industry, employing 65,000 pilots and carrying 75 percent of domestic passengers. But they don’t anticipate hiring for the next few years because they still have 9,100 pilots on furlough.
Meanwhile, the number of regional jets has quadrupled from 410 five years ago to 1,600 in 2004, according to the Regional Airline Association. Hundreds more are on order.
In all, more than 100 regional, low-fare and freight carriers plan to hire 8,000 to 10,000 pilots per year for the next several years, said Kit Darby, president of Air Inc., an Atlanta firm that tracks pilot jobs.
Many of the furloughed pilots for the major carriers have chosen not to work for smaller airlines because it means a pay cut.
And only a very small percentage of those hired are foreign pilots because of “the time and expense of helping them come here,” Darby said.
Until about five years ago, regional and major airlines drew most of their pilots from the military, where they received extensive experience flying in jets or large planes, Darby said.
But fewer military pilots are available now because of wartime demands and because more pilots are opting to make the military a full-time career, said Jennifer Stephens, an Air Force spokeswoman.
To deepen the pool of civilian pilot candidates, many smaller carriers have reduced their minimum hiring qualifications from 1,500 hours of flight time to 1,000 hours or less, Darby said.
On the surface, that presents no safety concerns because most pilots are hired as co-pilots, working alongside much more experienced captains.
But novice co-pilots could quickly upgrade to captain — because regional captains are good candidates to be signed up by larger airlines, which have much stiffer hiring requirements, said Breiling, a former Pan Am pilot.
“You may hire on as a co-pilot and a year or two later, you’re a captain,” he said, describing a scenario that is not unusual at smaller regional carriers.
Regional airline pilots face difficult situations every day, from flying into small airports with short runways to making frequent landings, Breiling said.
Since 2000, regional airliners have been involved in 74 accidents, five fatal, in the continental United States.
Of the fatal accidents, pilot error was cited in two cases and likely will be blamed in a third. Of 60 nonfatal accidents where a probable cause has been determined, 19 were blamed on pilot error, National Transportation Safety Board records show.
Deborah McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association, said regional carriers operate under the same safety rules as the major airlines. And once hired, a pilot undergoes the same intense training. That, she said, compensates for lack of experience.
“We have full-motion simulators, the whole works,” she said. “We operate under the same regulations.”