It all starts –and sometimes ends – with trust. People who fly trust their lives, and the lives of their family, friends, and co-workers, into the hands of pilots, mechanics and the support personnel who are charged with an aircraft’s safe operation.  And because most aircraft passengers and owners can’t fly, turn a wrench, or assess the capabilities of those who do, they must trust in our reputation for safety. 

This premise is so basic to our industry that we sometimes take it for granted – something we can never afford to do. That is most likely the reason that last month the NBAA Safety Committee created a list of ten Top Safety Focus Areas (, to help keep our focus where it belongs:

Professionalism, Positive Safety Culture, Single-Pilot Safety, Fitness for Duty; Airport Safety; Skills; Distraction Management; Public Policy; Technology Management; and Talent Pipeline.

It’s that last one that caught my eye. I’ve written before about the coming shortage of skilled, experienced pilots. We’re on the cusp of recovery: flight activity is up according to ARGUS, Avinode and JSSI tracking data, in both Part 91 and charter flying– even into the Ukraine during the current political upheaval. And GAMA projects growth in new aircraft deliveries, primarily in large-cabin, long-range aircraft.

New aircraft delivered means an expanded worldwide fleet. So we need to grow the worldwide population of experienced pilots, just as the largest cohort of experienced professional pilots, the Baby Boomers, has begun to reach the mandatory commercial airline retirement age of 65.

That cohort, in large measure, gained its necessary flight experience and qualifications in the military – no longer an option in today’s smaller cadre of armed forces.  We’re not replenishing that aging pool of qualified and experienced professional pilots fast enough via civilian channels. The cost to go from zero to ATP rating with the necessary flight hours is comparable to the cost of a four-year undergraduate degree program. That leaves many freshly-minted commercially-rated pilots with a hefty student loan debt.

The recently-enacted higher flight time minimums for commercial carrier first officers are a new hurdle for those carriers to sustain current activity, let alone accommodate growth.

The 2010 Congressional mandate that airlines’ first officers have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate rather than the previously-required commercial rating, coupled with a 600% increase in flight hours experience (from 250 to 1,500 hours), has forced many regionals to cut service schedules. Those reduced schedules even forced United to shutter its Cleveland-Hopkins hub earlier this year.

Pilots with that level of experience, and that amount of loan debt, simply aren’t willing to fly for regional airline first officer salaries below $25,000. So the major airlines, with starting first officer salaries above $60,000, will pull from the regional ranks, further reducing scheduled service to outlying areas.

Those reduced and eliminated commercial schedules open the door for more business aviation activity, as the only expeditious access to more remote cities and towns. More flight activity, more business aviation pilots needed – all at a time when experienced pilots are even harder to come by.

To quote the NBAA Safety Focus:

The forecasted shortage of business aviation professionals will create challenges in attracting, developmental mentoring, and retaining new professionals who can safely manage, maintain, service, and fly business aviation into the future.

Commercial operators with more resources are expected to scoop up many qualified candidates, leaving business aviation to fend for itself. Today's aviation professionals must begin to recruit and mentor the professionals of tomorrow.

This all places tremendous pressure on the cost structure of both business and commercial aviation to sustain current activity – and to grow. Because, in order to keep the trust in our ability to fly safely, very soon both segments will be competing for experienced and qualified pilots. That means rising ticket prices – and business jet operating costs.

Professional sports in the US control replenishment of their ranks with qualified personnel via a draft, of both freshly-minted college athletes and minor-league players. As tempting as it might be to draft directly from the better aviation colleges, flight and vocational schools, I can’t think of anyone who might want to fly with a “sixth round draft choice.”

It comes back to that issue of trust and safety. Everyone wants to fly with an all-star flight and ground crew, and every owner wants to believe that their crew is one of the best, in safety and service. Cost might be a different matter, as the laws of supply and demand and  the rules of the free market, will drive up the cost of the more qualified, more experienced pilot. 

We value competition to make the various aspects of our lives better, whether competing with others, with an industry standard, or simply with ourselves. Competing in the free market comes at a price. In aviation safety, that price now may well be the cost of a” first round draft pick.”

No Plane No Gain

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