Congress should address the critical pilot shortage

The U.S. airline sector is booming with a record number of people flying. The combination of an improved global economy and low fuel cost, reflected in ticket prices, is compelling more travelers to take to the air. The trend is expected to continue.

But for all this good news, there is a downside. Airline customer demand is outpacing airline capacity. The airline industry is facing a critical shortage of pilots. Current projections suggest that if the industry continues to produce pilots at the current rate, the U.S. will only have about two-thirds of the pilots needed to keep the airline industry healthy 20 years from now.

Congress is about to tackle the problem in the legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneCongress should address the critical pilot shortage Senate rejects repeal-only ObamaCare plan Senate delays vote on healthcare repeal MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has proposed to make it easier for first officers (co-pilots) to meet their required 1,500 hours of training without sacrificing safety standards. Actions akin to that are certainly needed.

The current number of pilots is so low that the Federal Aviation Administration has raised the maximum retirement age to 65 as a stop-gap measure, but that has not and will not solve the problem. The issue is not that pilots are retiring too young; the issue is that young people are not becoming pilots. Regardless of the FAA’s stop-gap measure, by 2022 approximately 18,000 American pilots will turn 65 and be forced to retire. The FAA’s Band-Aid solution won’t work for long. 

Many of today’s commercial pilots who are nearing retirement received their flight training in the military. But that is the case for fewer and fewer younger aspirational pilots. For them, the only pathway to the cockpit is through private flight training, a lengthy and costly process.

U.S. lawmakers and regulators have raised the number of hours needed to…

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