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Airline pilots used to command so much respect that their reputations ranked right up there with firefighters and professional athletes. Their careers were viewed as bold and dangerous, and they would turn heads everywhere they went in uniform. But today, some airlines claim they’re struggling to keep enough pilots among their ranks to match the growth of the industry.

SkyWest president and CEO, Chip Childs testified before Congress last week, saying that a shortage of pilots could lead to the grounding of many aircraft among the regional fleets of US airlines. Childs told the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee last Wednesday that he expects a shortfall of 15,000 regional pilots by 2026. SkyWest performs regional service for American, Delta, and United.

What Pilot Shortage?

Is there really a pilot shortage? Before 2010, a novice pilot could get hired as a First Officer by an airline with a commercial pilot certificate and as little as 250 hours under his or her belt. Airlines often cite the new 1,500 hour requirement and need for an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate — enacted in 2010 — as the catalyst for this so-called shortage.

The Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA), on the other hand, says no shortage exists, and according to its website, “More than 25,500 [ATP] certificates have been issued since July 2013 — this rate of issuance continues to exceed the most optimistic pilot forecast.” ALPA is also the pilots’ union for many US airlines.

Grounded by Expenses

Becoming a pilot can be prohibitively expensive for most people. In a way, it’s like medical school and one has to be career-focused and willing to go into debt while earning the appropriate licenses and aircraft type ratings. If you don’t own an aircraft, even being a private pilot can cost well over $100 per hour, plus the required classroom training. Total costs could easily exceed $200,000 to rack up those 1,500 hours, while the starting salary at many regional airlines starts below $30,000. ALPA believes the low salaries are the primary reason would-be pilots are avoiding airline careers. Needless to say, the notion of flying tiny planes between tiny towns for very little money might appeal only to those who are in it purely for the love of flying, though it pays dividends if you are committed to making it a career.

For passengers, the downside of a possible pilot shortage is that some airlines would have to reduce the number of flights they’re offering. The reduction in seat supply would drive up demand, which could also drive up the cost of your tickets.

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.

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Some airlines say an upcoming pilot shortage could seriously impact their service, while their pilots' union argues there's really no shortage at all.

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