BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – Thing is, the commercial airline industry has gone up and down since 1978, when the Airline Deregulation Act went into federal law. The act made the industry a free market and was meant to encourage competition, and it worked. Lower fares meant that traveling wasn’t just for the rich anymore, and people flocked to the airport, leading to an increase in flights and passengers.
However, deregulation also made the market less stable as many smaller airlines merge or go bankrupt because the airline industry requires a lot of financial investment for the money that it rakes in.
Then, 9/11 happened, and many Americans were afraid to fly. The mistrust of commercial airlines caused the industry to tank.
“They laid off a lot of pilots,” said Joel Kirk, Director of the Aviation Center of Excellence at Fairmont State University, “and what happened is during that recovery, they kept their senior pilots obviously, and the younger pilots who got laid off during that period of time went on and found other jobs and didn’t stay in aviation. Well, what’s happened now–the older pilots that they kept have reached mandatory retirement age.”
According to federal law, pilots must retire at 65. The age was raised in 2007
from 60 to 65 with the passage of the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act, and there’s a movement to raise the age as high as 70 to meet the demand for pilots.
A report by Cowen and Company estimates that more than 42% of active U.S. airline pilots at the biggest carriers will retire in the next 10 years, and the Federal Aviation Administration is predicting that demand for air travel will grow substantially in that time frame.
If 9/11 was the catalyst, the recession only added fuel to the fire. During that time, many Americans couldn’t afford to take vacations or were unwilling to shell out the cash for air travel. The great recession of 2007 to 2009 caused airlines to cut costs even further–eliminating less profitable routes, filling flights to the brim by overbooking, providing expensive airline food, and more merging.
And these efforts were successful. 2018 is the 10th consecutive year of profitability for the U.S. airline industry, and the FAA’s most recent forecast report says that the industry is expected to grow even more stable in the next ten years.
Looking forward, there is a confidence that U.S. airlines have finally transformed from a capital intensive, highly cyclical industry to an industry that generates solid returns on capital sustained profits.
But as the industry grows, airlines are going to have to solve this pilot shortage problem. Boeing predicts that in the next 10 years, there will need to be 645,000 more pilots worldwide to keep up with demand.
“There’s not enough beating hearts on the planet that are involved in aviation to make that happen,” said Kirk, and he continued, “The pilot shortage, whether people know it or not affects everybody on the planet. What you’ll see is ticket prices going up. You’ll see flights getting canceled, which is already happening.”
And the shortage doesn’t just affect commercial airlines–it affects the whole aviation community.
You can’t just knight someone a pilot, it takes years to train a pilot and they’re behind on doing that.
JOEL KIRK, DIRECTOR OF THE AVIATION CENTER OF EXCELLENCE AT FAIRMONT STATE UNIVERSITY
“If the commercial aviation is behind, military aviation is behind as well,” said Kirk, “because if they’re hiring in a commercial airlines, a lot of kids will say, well I don’t know if I want to go to the military for 10 years, I’ll just go this route. So the military is suffering right now.”
So the ultimate solution is to train up more pilots. The United States is the only country in the world with major airlines that require four year degrees in order to be a pilot, and some say it’s too much of a financial investment with what many are calling a student debt crisis happening in the country right now. But Kirk said there are still major benefits to getting a four year degree.
“It’s a very solid investment for the kids who are qualified because we know if they get those certifications, that job is sitting there waiting on them, it’s just a statistical numerical game,” said Kirk. “The four year degree is an added benefit basically for resume building and also just general social skills. As a pilot, you have to be in a leadership position. You have to work with passengers all the time, flight attendants, crew. So you get a lot of exposure in college, learning how to deal with people and sociology and public speaking and things like that that you need to do as a pilot.”
“The four year degree program is also a fall back, if something were to happen to you medically as a pilot,” Kirk explained. “That four year degree can come in and help you out in some other field of study or career field.”
A pilot can be disqualified by the FAA if they have certain medical conditions. Disqualifying medical conditions include bipolar disease and other mental health issues, heart disease, certain cases of diabetes and eye conditions.
“One of the biggest thing that gets our students is medical issues. So stay
healthy, and we teach them [not to] be in the wrong place. Don’t do something stupid that will ruin your career like riding four-wheelers with no helmet, you know, skiing, stuff like that that you might get hurt,” said Kirk. “But eye issues and things like that are generally the biggest thing that gets students so stay healthy, be able to stay healthy in the future, exercising and things like that. Because health issues are the ones that bring them down faster than any.”
Fairmont State’s aviation program is the only four year collegiate program in the state that offers a commercial multi-engine flight option and a four year degree at the same time. But two years ago, the flight program’s enrollment was in the single digits.
“Two years ago, I would describe it as a smoking hole or very close to being a smoking hole in the ground,” Kirk explained. “There really was not a lot of hope out there because of that pilot shortage again, had taken away a lot of the instructor pilots and chief pilots, and even previous to that, the airline industry wasn’t hiring. There was no movement. So there wasn’t a lot of attention focused on pilot training, which is now where the logjam is.
“Because pilot training, whether it be at the basic level or the advanced level at American Airlines…they can only train so many pilots. So no matter how many seats they’ve got open out there, the logjam is in the training. You can’t just knight someone a pilot, it takes years to train a pilot and they’re behind on doing that.”
Today, the program has 40 students, and they plan to expand it to
accommodate 80 to 100 students. That includes getting more planes, a new
place to store the planes, and more space to fly the planes.
“To have six and eight trainer airplanes flying around over their hometown is a pretty neat opportunity for any kids in the local community here,” said Kirk.
Fairmont State’s competitive flight program will be accepting applications for Fall 2020 in August. For more information on the flight program, click here.