Solving the pilot shortage, responsibly

Dear FAA,

Please don't change the mandatory retirement age to 68. Pretty please, with sugar on top.

The first time may have been warranted, with people living longer and the companies in panic mode due to the Great Recession. This time, if you must, absolutely must do it, please don't do it overnight with the stroke of a pen.

There are so many more factors to filling the 260,000 pilot seats that will be necessary over the next 10 years than just letting us all fly 2.99726 more years.

In the first place, the shortage is real, and it is here with vigor. That same pool of applicants the major airlines have been contending for for years is shrinking, rapidly. The flow programs are no longer the preferred method of regional pilots to get to a mainline--they're getting picked off well before they are scheduled to flow. The military is hopeless to provide a steady stream of pilots in the civilian sector, and they're having their own pilot manning issues to boot. New pilot starts are way down, most people loath to incur six-figure student debt without the honorific "M.D." at the end.

The first step to take to help alleviate the growing pilot shortage is for airlines to pay more. Already the majors--and many ULCCs as well--are paying rather high salaries with high, but if the aviation news for a few years featured major contractual gains after contractual gains, then this would lure more aspiring pilots to incur the cost, which will in fact pay off in fewer years than ever. Far fewer, I would wager, than any doctor's or lawyer's schooling costs.

The second step for airlines to take is fix some of the onerous work rules and operating nightmares that pilots are dealt every day. What doctor would come to work only to not be paid for sitting in his office without pay while the front office figured out which patients to be seen first? There would be some office workers looking for jobs I'd think. That's just one example of what pilots deal with every day in an inefficient operation: get to work, unpaid for the first hour until the plane pushes from the gate, and further unpaid time on duty while the various managers figure out why the plane isn't fueled yet, or the catering isn't there yet, or the widget that is broken wasn't fixed while the plane sat there all night; sometimes this unpaid time stretches on for hours and hours. Why would someone take on over $100,000 of student debt only to be shackled to an airline that can't figure itself out?

This is all very self-serving, I know, the airline pilot asking for more money. and better work rules. Even I acknowledge this next burble in the industry can't possibly be all a boon to pilots. For a while I kept an app current at FedEx thinking it would be great to change lanes if they called but I stopped updating it, principally because I think this is one of the first things they're going to fiddle with to alleviate the pilot shortage: long-haul crew compliments.

Right now for U.S. carriers, long-haul crews require three pilots if operating more than 8-9 hours of flight time and four if the flight time is longer than 13 hours, with a maximum flight time of 17 hours for four pilots. This is the most obvious change to make, to reduce the three- and four-pilot requirement, or to eliminate the fourth pilot requirement altogether. This alone will make an enormous difference in the cargo operators' manning needs and reduce those flag carriers with a large widebody footprint in their operation.

There is no free lunch, however, and the fatigue of being on duty more hours and over periods when the body wants to be asleep is very, very real. To mitigate the cumulative fatigue of such reduced-pilot operations the FAA must permit controlled rest, or periods of pilot sleep in the seat in the cockpit. This is already permitted in ICAO and some carriers permit 40 or 45 minute naps in the pilot seat followed by a 20 minute "recovery" period. This would be a necessary change if the fourth pilot on long-haul flights is eliminated, because that brief brain-break nap is so rejuvenating for the human brain. The body will remain fairly tired, but the brain will have had time to recover and remain alert for the task-intensive arrival and landing ahead.

In no case should single-pilot passenger airline operations ever, ever be permitted. That old adage that flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror is all one needs to consider before thinking just one human in the cockpit is all that is needed to carry 200 souls behind them. It is surely an airline executive's dream to cut nearly 50% of their pilot costs with a few robots, but if there ever was an idea that is light years away, it's having a sentient being next to you to say "I don't like the look of that." I'm sure the engineering geniuses can make a perfectly functional button-pushing robot, but one that can smack the hand of the person next to them when they are headed down a bad road? Not in a hundred years, at least. That's science fiction at this point.

It was on this point that I withdrew my FedEx application. Feeling too far along to switch lanes anyway, I also sense that the cargo operators are the ones with the greatest exposure to these kinds of changes in crew compliments and automation. "Tired pilot crashes plane full of boxes in field in Kansas" doesn't have quite the same impact of "Pilot fatigue kills 300 people." I'm a perfectly happy bus driver for many reasons.

So please, FAA, please don't try to "solve" or "mitigate" the looming pilot crisis with one miserable stroke of the pen. It will require a thoughtful and comprehensive overhaul of the the entire system. It's going to cost the airlines more money to incentivize new recruits into the field, both in pay and in work rules. It's still a fantastic career, but it does need fresh blood to keep it going.


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