When Matt Stege was 6 years old, three T6 World War II trainer planes flew over his house en route to an air show.
There was just something about it, he said, recalling that day when he stood on the front porch of his Aspen home and watched the planes fly overhead.
It was “seeing them in formation and the sound they made,” Stege said. “I just got hooked.”
But it was at age 14, when he took off in a plane for the first time during an introductory training flight, that he knew someday he would become a professional pilot.
And that he did. Now, Stege, 33, a resident of Denver, is a first officer of a Boeing 737 for a major airline.
The topic of a shortage of airline pilots is popular in the headlines. Yet a straightforward answer to whether or not it exists is hard to come by.
The airlines are volatile industry, said Dan Callender of Arvada, a captain with a major airline. Any little change in the economy can hit the airlines up front, causing an effect — good or bad — in the airlines more quickly than in any other industry, he said. For example, a change of only a couple cents for a gallon of fuel can make a significant impact on the airlines.
Airlines are constantly evaluating what their forecasted needs may be, Callender said. That’s why there are times when there’s a lot of hiring of pilots happening, and other times when there’s a lull, Callender said. An airline pilot shortage would be based on forecasted need, and the number of pilots available, he said.
“If projection goes up, need goes up,” Callender said. “It’s all supply and demand.”
However, there are a few major contributors that can be associated with or attributed to a shortage of airline pilots, said Kevin Kuhlmann, a professor and the associate chair in the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. These are: legislation that stems from the 2009 plane crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, a massive retirement rate of pilots and the cost of education and training.
Colgan Air Flight 3407
At about 10:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2009, in wintry weather conditions that consisted of light snow, fog and wind, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed into a house just outside of its destination city of Buffalo, New York. A total of 50 people died in the crash — 49 crew members, including the two pilots, and passengers, and one person in the house.
The incident triggered legislation. New standards for first officers, also refered to as co-pilots, raised their minimum of flight experience level from 250 hours to 1,500 hours — the same amount that captains must accumulate. It took effect in August 2013.
How the new legislation plays into the potential shortage of airline pilots, Kuhlmann said, is it creates a vacuum of hireable pilots. The larger, major airlines, such as Delta and United, for example, want to hire the pilots who have a surplus of 3,000 to 4,000 in-flight hours. Often, pilots earn these hours from working at a smaller, regional airline, such as Frontier and Spirit, for example, or through corporate aviation or as charter pilots. The regional airlines try to attract and retain the qualified candidates — those who have earned 1,500 in-flight hours and their Air Transport Pilot certificate — from other sources, such as instructors at flight schools or perhaps the military.
As it is, the number of pilots earning their ATP is barely keeping up with the number of job openings for airline pilots, Stege said.
One thing that may be helping to ease the crunch, Kuhlmann said, is some airlines are starting to look at colleges and interview aviation students, keeping in mind that they still have a ways to go before all the credentials are met.
Cost of education, flight training
Being a pilot is “one of the best jobs you could ever have,” Stege said. But there’s no denying that it takes a lot of dedication and the initial flight training is expensive.
To earn a degree in aviation in addition to all the certifications needed, Stege said, it can cost a person upward of $80,000 to $100,000 or more.
Sarah Denton knew she wanted to pursue a career in aviation since she was a teenager.
“My grandpa is my role model and inspiration to become a pilot,” Denton said. “I remember walking up to my best friend one morning before school, and telling her that I wanted to fly like my grandpa did.”
Her grandfather is a fantastic storyteller, she said, so she grew up hearing his stories about the Vietnam War — he was a weapon systems operator and flew an F-4 Phantom II.
Now, Denton, 25, is a private pilot and is working as a line service technician for Signature Flight Support at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. However, she was recently offered a position with Jeppesen where she will work as a navigation information analyst.
Denton received a couple scholarships that helped pay for her training, but she also had to take out loans. But for her, it was worth it, she said.
“Pilots are in high demand,” Denton said. But “it’s also just a fun industry with a variety of jobs both on the ground and in the air.”
She suggests taking jobs in the industry that will provide a variety of different perspectives.
“Enjoy the journey,” Denton said. “Don’t let finances stop you, because there is always a way.”
Once a person has earned a commercial pilot certificate and a certified flight instructor certificate, he or she may teach at a flight school. Stege’s guess is that flight instructors can earn about $15 to $20 an hour, but it is difficult to do it as a full-time job.
Scott Frank, 27, of Broomfield graduated from Metro on Dec. 15 with a bachelor’s degree in aviation technology with a professional pilot concentration. This spring, he will be starting an internship with a major airline where he will work in the chief pilot’s office at Denver International Airport.
His long-term goal is to work for an international major airline.
“It’s a step-by-step process,” Frank said, but added that so far, it’s been the most rewarding thing he’s done.
Frank currently works as a flight instructor for Western Air Flight Academy out of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, and he enjoys it because he likes seeing the smiles on people’s faces.
From the first day of students’ flight training when they know nothing about aviation to the “perma-grin” they get after their first solo, Frank said. “I love my job.”
Pay for pilots depends on what they are flying and for whom, said Jeff Price, an author and professor in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace at Metro. Some companies pay better than others, and the regional airlines typically pay less than the major airlines, Price said.
In general, during “the first few years, they don’t make a lot at all,” Price said. But “then it really starts jumping.”
Some pilots can make as little as $18,000 to $23,000 in their early years, he said. Others, during their first few years at the charter and regional levels, can make somewhere between $25,000 to $45,000. A pilot of 10 or 20 years can easily be making an excess of six figures, with some into the $200,000 and up range with a major airline, Price said.
Retirement, employment cutbacks
For about a decade prior to Sept. 11, 2001, airlines went through a rough patch of time, Stege said.
“Then 9/11,” he added, “and that hit them hard.”
In those years, Stege said, the industry was not hiring, employees suffered from pay cuts and furloughs, and pilot pensions were taken away. Airlines were merging, and others went bankrupt.
Now that the economy is recovering, the airline industry is as well, Stege said. But in his opinion, it’s still only been within the past few years that it’s beginning to bounce back.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, airlines cut the pay scale significantly, so there fewer people wanting to enter the industry, Kuhlmann said.
“We’re slowly seeing a rebound to that,” he said, “but there’s still not enough to fill the need.”
Another thing that airlines will need to keep up with so as not to experience a shortage of airline pilots is the number of pilots retiring, Stege said.
On July 15, 2009, the FAA issued a ruling that raised the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots from 60 to 65.
It helped pilots approaching retirement age in that period of time, Callender said.
However, within the next decade or so, there will be a massive retirement rate of pilots from the Vietnam era, Kuhlmann said. The time period for the Vietnam era, as defined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is Aug. 5, 1964 through May 7, 1975, but begins in February 1961 for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period. It should be noted that not all pilots from that time period flew in the war, Callender added.
No matter which stance a person takes on whether there is or not a pilot shortage, one thing for certain is that pilots enter the career for the love of flying.
And to become a pilot, specifically a professional pilot, it takes true passion, Price said.
“If, when you’re not flying you wish you were, then a pilot career is what you need,” Price said. “It’s a feeling that you must do this. Your life will have a hole in it that can never be filled if you don’t pursue it. Oh, and the view is pretty cool, too.”