Airlines battle growing pilot shortage that could reach crisis levels in a few years

It's a great time to be studying to be pilot. Just ask Madison Wolf who has only a year of training left at the Metro State University of Denver.

"I've seen even just in the few years that I've been at it they've been offering more and more money,” Wolf said. “They're just trying to get as many people as they can."

That's because a shortage of pilots is already hitting some sectors of the industry, mostly small regional airlines and ultra-low cost carriers.

Aviation analyst Mike Boyd says the major airlines are only just beginning to feel the pinch.

"There are restrictions, if you will, on how many pilots there are but it hasn't really hit home yet,” Boyd said. “The real hit's going to be in the next three to five years."

The Boeing Pilot Outlook predicts a need for 117,000 new pilots between 2017 and 2036 in North America alone. Worldwide, the demand for new pilots will be an astounding 637,000 during the same period.

"I see the pilot shortage myself," Wolf said. "We're so short on instructors sometimes. Every few months the regional airlines kind of come through and sweep out all the qualified instructors."

MSU's Kevin Kuhlmann, associate chair of the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department, said airlines are going to aviation schools for new hires because they have few other choices.

"The regional carriers have started to enter into agreements with Collegiate Aviation Programs and entice students to come on board during their academic career,” Kuhlmann said. “These kind of opportunities were not available five or more years ago."

Kuhlmann said the major airlines have plans to do the same – recruit directly from universities instead of hiring from regional airlines or the military, both of which are trying to keep their own pilots from leaving.

Scott Frank just graduated from MSU and has already been tapped for an opportunity with a major airline.

"I do have the United internship that's due to start in the spring. I can pretty much skip that regional area and just go straight to United," he said.

Many, like Boyd, blame Washington for the dearth of qualified pilots. They cite the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, which the National Transportation Safety Board blamed, in part, on pilot error.

Congress then upped the flying hours pilots needed to qualify to fly commercially from 250 to 1,500.

"That sounds good," Boyd admits. "Politicians love it and they get all upset if you try to change it. But the fact is that wouldn't have prevented that crash because both the pilots (on the Colgan flight) had more than that."

The Air Line Pilots Association, International says the 1,500-hour rule must stay.

"We shouldn't be addressing a safety regulation to mitigate a commercial market problem," according to the association’s president, Capt. Tim Canoll.

ALPA also denies there is a shortage of qualified pilots to begin with, citing Federal Aviation Administration statistics that show 9,520 new pilots received their Airline Transport Certificates in 2016, qualifying them to fly large aircrafts used by major airlines.

The union compares that number to another from Future & Active Pilot Advisors, which shows the major airlines hired only 4,113 new pilots in 2016.

"There are twice as many pilots as there are jobs," Canoll said. "Those having trouble attracting that pilot to the job are the ones who aren't providing a living wage, a good work-life balance, a career progression and a good balance in benefits."

Most agree that something needs to change.