What's behind pilot shortage threat?

HOUSTON - Between delayed flights, lost luggage and additional fees, the airlines have fallen out of public favor in recent years.  Now there could be a bigger problem in the industry's future -- not enough qualified captains for the cockpits.

The main issue is experience.  The current federal mandate is 250 flight hours to become a commercial pilot, but come August, that number jumps to 1,500 hours.

According to Aaron Stinson, who runs The Flight School Inc. in Cypress, "The FAA wants the general public to be more safe. The more qualified the pilot, the more safe you're going to be."

Beyond the new training requirements, there are other issues at play, including a flood of retired pilots, others being lured away by higher pay from international carriers, military pilots staying in service longer and the expense of flight school.

"So you combine that all up with the flying the general public does and in the next two or three years we foresee a pretty good shortage happening," Stinson said. 

The airlines hope students like Clive Armytage go the distance.

Armytage said, "Everyone wants to come in and fly the big jets. I don't necessarily want to do that at this stage."

A love of agriculture has him thinking of a less-stressful career than flying for the major carriers.

"I have a farming background in Australia and I just like working with farmers," Armytage said. "If I can get agriculture and aviation and mix it together, my goal is to be a crop duster."

"We need 10,000 a year according to the FAA over the next 10 years," The Flight School Inc. Chief Instructor John Vanpaasschen said. "So I'm holding them longer so they're not going to the airline."

Vanpaasschen also said more people need to take an interest in flying and have the time and resources to finish school.

"It's expensive, but what did your college education cost?" said Vanpaasschen.  "You can get a commercial license here for $25,000 to $30,000. If you want to go to an expensive school, like Harvard, it's going to cost more."

The Air Line Pilots Association said the shortage is being hyped up. The group said the solution lies in a more competitive North American airline industry that can better compete with global competitors.

"With consistently profitable and stable airlines, our industry can offer the salary, benefits and job security that will retain and attract the most qualified pilots, now and in the future," said the Air Line Pilots Association.

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