A worldwide shortage of pilots is putting less-experienced fliers at the controls of passenger jets and even forcing some airlines to cancel flights for a lack of crews.
In the U.S., the pilot squeeze is being felt mostly at regional airlines, carriers that feed passengers to bigger airlines using planes with fewer than 100 seats. Most regional airlines have lowered their experience-level requirements for new hires, and some have struggled to find pilots with enough hours in their logbooks to serve as captains. Pilots still have to pass tests at each airline and meet proficiency standards, but some aviation experts are concerned that less-experienced pilots may not perform as well in emergencies or may be more prone to mistakes.
"There is no substitute for experience, particularly in a cockpit," says Jim Hall, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The pilot shortage is the result of a combination of factors. Fast-growing foreign airlines and cargo carriers have sucked up pilots. Growth in the U.S. at discount airlines and private-jet companies has also led to surging demand for personnel.
Newer carriers and fractional-jet companies have been hiring hundreds of pilots furloughed by major carriers, plus pilots who built some experience at lower-paying regional airlines. In the past year or two, major carriers have been recalling furloughed pilots as well, creating rapid turnover at regional airlines.
At the same time, the U.S. military, a major supplier of commercial airline staff, has been turning out fewer pilots.
AMR Corp.'s American Eagle Airlines hired more than 500 pilots this year, one-sixth of its total rank of 3,000 pilots. About 170 pilots were called back up to American Airlines, and about 30 others per month found jobs elsewhere. That has left Eagle scrambling to hire pilots from training academies and flight schools.
The pilot shortage was a contributing factor in some flight cancellations this year, American Eagle says. To open its door to more candidates, Eagle lowered its minimum for experience this year to 600 hours total flying time from 800 hours, and will "look" at some candidates in the 500-hour range, Eagle spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said.
"We do need more pilots," she said.
Several years ago, regional airlines required applicants to have 1,500 hours of total flying time and 500 of those hours in multiengine airplanes, a level typically reached after several years of work as a flight instructor, freight hauler or corporate-jet pilot.
But now some are down around 500 hours, with as little as 50 of those hours in multiengine airplanes, according to Kit Darby, president of Aviation Information Resources, Inc., an Atlanta-based career resource company for pilots.
Newly minted pilots start as co-pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration requirements to fly as a captain include at least 1,500 hours, typically, at least two years of airline experience.
Major airlines can still require several thousand cockpit hours of experience before taking the controls of Boeing and Airbus jets, and haven't had a shortage of applicants. But Darby thinks regional airlines will be forced to drop as low as FAA licensing minimums, 250 hours to get a commercial license necessary to serve as a co-pilot, and bigger airlines will ultimately feel the pinch.
Concerned about the pilot shortage, Congress passed legislation last week raising the mandatory retirement age for U.S. commercial airline pilots to 65 from 60, and President Bush signed the law this month.
That should at least temporarily slow the number of pilots that big airlines hire away from smaller carriers, but Darby says the change won't end the shortage. He estimates a net gain of about 1,500 pilots in the first year the retirement age is raised, while some 13,000 pilots were hired this year.
Ultimately the U.S. may have to adopt new, quicker training models for pilots, Darby says, and airlines may have to start paying for early schooling for pilots and raise starting salaries for pilots, currently as low as $24,000 a year.
An old pilot adage says the job entails hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. The vast majority of flights occur normally and routinely: no mechanical breakdowns, no difficult decisions to be made because of bad weather or other abnormalities.
But it's the emergency situations where experience can matter.
Airlines say training of new pilots has improved thanks to better technology, from full-motion cockpit simulators to computer-based ground school, and today's regional airline pilots are just as safe if not safer than previous generations. Modern jets are filled with safety enhancements, too, making emergencies easier to handle safely.
Airlines also point to military training programs that have pilots landing high-performance jets on aircraft carriers within one year and 200 to 300 hours.
"The notion that you need 'X' amount of hours in a Cessna 172 in order to move up in today's environment with today's technology and tools is wrong," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, which represents smaller carriers. "Someone with fewer hours but better hours, quality hours in modern training, may be more capable."
Studies have been inconclusive on whether there's a link between accidents and experience for airline pilots. Several studies have found a U-shaped curve: Accident rates tend to be higher for less-experienced pilots, and for older pilots as well. Older pilots, the thinking goes, may have become complacent.
Airlines have developed several accelerated training programs with flight schools around the country. The programs aim to target training to regional jets and move young pilots fresh out of college and career-change pilots who may have lots of hours in private planes to airlines quicker.
In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization has developed a "multicrew pilot license" that targets training directly to co-pilot duties. The program requires 240 hours of flying or simulator time and takes about a year, if students pass competency tests, to place someone in an airline job.
Europe has adopted MPL, and Australia and China are moving ahead with implementation, according to the International Air Transport Association, but the U.S. hasn't yet begun to study of the idea.
Trans States Airlines, a small St. Louis-based regional airline that operates flights on behalf of American, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and US Airways Group Inc., said its minimum for hiring is now 500 hours, down from 1,500 several years ago. Like other regional carriers, the company has developed programs with several universities to route graduates toward Trans States.
"We have to work harder to go out and find these people," said Mishk, vice president of marketing at Trans States. One factor likely caused by the lower requirements: More new hires flunk out of the airline's training program.
"That says to me the system is working," Mishk said.