Las Vegas Sun

July 12, 2024

Commercial pilot shortage opens flight paths to opportunity

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A frantic push for pilots to take early retirement during the pandemic, the federal requirements for pilot training and a hard cutoff on commercial flying past a certain age are just a few of the factors aviation experts in Las Vegas say have led to a nationwide pilot shortage.

A mass exodus from the labor force, whether for other careers or retirement, is projected to cause almost 17,000 openings for airline and commercial pilots annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The airlines are desperate,” said Dan Bubb, an associate professor at UNLV and a former airline pilot. “If anybody’s considering going into a commercial aviation flying career, this is the time to do it. And, in fact, airlines are paying more money now than I’ve ever heard of in my life.”

The number of people that are retiring is outpacing the number of people that are becoming career pilots, said Paul Sallach, co-owner and president of Henderson-based All In Aviation. Another reason for the shortage, he said, may be that a career as a pilot wasn’t always so lucrative.

“There’s just a lot of catching up to do,” Sallach said, noting that commercial aviation is now a six-figure job out of the gate. “Making up for lost time.”

Filling the gaps

Though many airlines historically wanted pilots to have four-year degrees, that’s no longer a priority, said Ron Kelly, CEO of the Las Vegas Flight Academy, who emphasized that a pilot doesn’t need a college degree to do the job.

All they need, he said, is a knowledge of math, physics and more that aspiring pilots could learn from, essentially, a trade school.

“There’s a lot of kids out there who have no idea that being a pilot’s even a possibility for them,” Kelly said.

To educate inner-city children on the benefits of a career as a pilot — like working just 15 days a month and averaging an income of more than $200,000 per year — Kelly founded the Minority Pilot Advancement Foundation, which goes to schools and urban areas and teaches students about the aviation industry.

The value proposition of a degree isn’t there anymore, he said. Many kids will spend a quarter of a million dollars to go to college, and then get a job starting at less than $100,000. Even as a newcomer, pilots will make over $100,000 a year, plus earn a massive signing bonus, he said.

Though they may have had to spend as much to become an airline pilot, they immediately make the return on their money and have no college debt, Kelly said.

“Most importantly, you’re starting with a great job that leads to a really bright future,” he said. “What I believe is that if we can get these kids to buy into what we’re saying, and go through the process to become pilots, we’re now taking that kid out of a lower socioeconomic area. They can now afford to go to a better neighborhood and their kids will go into better schools. It will cause generational change.”

Similarly, All In Aviation had an open house Saturday for high school students and recent graduates to learn about flight training and how much more accessible it may be than they realize. Flight training is certainly expensive, Sallach said, but there’s an immediate return on one’s investment.

Without a four-year degree requirement, high school graduates can do their pilot training, get their required number of hours and be flying for a major airline by the time they turn 22 years old, Sallach said.

“If you’re an 18-year-old kid trying to figure out what you want to do with your life and your parents have set aside all this money to send you to college and you’re uncertain that you really want to go to college, but you have an interest in travel and aviation — that’s the perfect storm,” he said. “Because the parent has already saved up the money to send their kid to be educated. They’re being educated in a different way now, just with flight school.”

Even with the big return on a flight-training investment, someone from a low-income area is not likely to spend thousands of dollars to become a pilot in hopes of getting a job, said Kelly.

His foundation wants to remove that economic barrier.

“What we want to do is raise funds so that we can pay for it,” he said. “And then, hopefully, we’re going to instill in them the thought of giving back. And, hopefully, they’ll give back when they get their signing bonus — so donate that back to the foundation. That way we can help more kids.”

The shortage won’t be solved overnight, he said, but it will be straightened out eventually. All the recruitment efforts that organizations like his and others are doing to bring more minorities and women into aviation will start to “fill that gap,” Kelly said.

“The thing is, it’s a win-win-win, because we’re changing lives,” he said, noting the massive lack of African American and women pilots in the industry. “We’re changing the economics and the balance, let’s say, of people in the industry.”

Local airline’s efforts

Allegiant Air earlier this year announced the launch of the Allegiant Incentive program, which will give the Las Vegas-based carrier access to a pool of pilots trained by Berry Aviation, a private aviation company.

The partnership will enhance pilot recruitment for Allegiant by “creating a pathway for experienced pilots to integrate seamlessly into the company’s workforce,” according to a release.

“We see tremendous value in our pilot pathway programs and are excited to expand with Berry Aviation,” Allegiant President Gregory Anderson said in a statement. “Our out-and-back business model provides flight crews with a unique balance between work and home life, making Allegiant a desirable airline for pilots at all levels of experience. We believe this partnership fits beautifully in supporting the future growth of our pilot ranks.”

Allegiant Incentive joins other responses by the airline to the ongoing pilot shortage, including Accelerate Pilot Pathway — a partnership with select universities that have a particular flight training program.

Cadets in Accelerate Pilot Pathway, which Allegiant launched about a year ago, are provided with a “mentor” from Allegiant to guide them, conditional employment as a first officer for the airline and assistance with regulatory credentials, according to a news release.

“This program provides an excellent opportunity for talented and motivated students to pursue their dream of becoming a first officer with a major airline without the need to fly for a regional carrier. We look forward to welcoming our future first officers and supporting them through their training and career with Allegiant,” Tyler Hollingsworth, Allegiant’s vice president of flight crew services, said in the release.

What’s next

In addition to lucrative pay, Bubb said other long-term solutions to the pilot shortage may be offering pilots the opportunity to learn how to fly different aircraft or being promoted. Airlines are also trying to raise the cutoff age for commercial flying, which is currently 65, per the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Even the airlines have had to learn to become resourceful in trying to figure out ways to train and hire pilots,” he said. “So it’s an all-hands-on-deck (situation). Everybody is trying, and we’re trying to go as safely and efficiently as we possibly can.”

Pilot ground schools are full, Bubb said. While many people may think that pilots are ready to go once they graduate from ground school, however, they actually have a few more years before they become seasoned.

“So they are qualified,” he said, emphasizing the importance of thorough training for pilots. “They have to go through very rigorous exams — very rigorous training — before they’re actually put in a passenger plane . … It takes time.”

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