This week at Sun 'n Fun they had an aircraft-destroying F1 tornado touch down, but the 40-odd planes that were damaged will be repaired or replaced. At least no one was seriously hurt! But other far more damaging things are happening in aviation, ones that are much more long-term than a simple act of nature.
Pete Bunce, the head of the General Aviation Manufacturer's Association (GAMA) brought up the topic that no one wants to talk about, as part of a Sun 'n Fun general aviation "Town Meeting" panel discussion. It is what he called aviation's "elephant in the room", poor salaries for professional pilots that are killing student starts and causing real world safety problems. They were cited as a cause in the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, for one.
Bunce said, "Nobody wants to talk about that." Flight training is expensive, yet pilots are launching a career with salaries that won't pay their expenses, never mind their student loans, and "there is something fundamentally wrong with that equation."
Bunce is right, young pilots working for air carriers are finding that the six figure salaries they dreamed of no longer exist and that they will be living with their parents for the foreseeable future, unable to make enough to eat. The problem is the same all over North America and indeed most of the globe. Student starts are down as most young people heard what Chesley Sullenberger, the very senior pilot who safely ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on 15 January 2009, saving the lives of all 155 people on the aircraft said, when he testified before the US House of Representatives's Subcommittee on Aviation of the Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure on 24 February 2009. He told them that his salary had been cut by 40 percent and that his pension, like most airline pensions, had been terminated and replaced by a "PBGC" guarantee worth almost nothing. He also told them that an airline career was no longer worth pursuing and he recommended young people choose something else to do with their lives. He saw the very low pay, not just for new hires, but for all professional pilots, regardless of seniority, as a serious safety problem.
A lot of people have been hanging a solution to this problem for years on the "upcoming shortage of airline pilots" that the flying schools have been pitching to prospective students since the 1970s. I heard it when I learned to fly in the mid-1970s and it hasn't happened yet. Here in 2011, as in 2008, fuel prices are rising quickly again, airlines are cutting schedules and looking at more pilot lay-offs this year and so that old flying school recruiting saw, an "upcoming pilot shortage", isn't likely to happen in the near future either.
Bunce didn't offer any solutions in the panel discussion, but he thought it needed to be discussed.
In theory, in a free labour market, the problem will sort itself out over time, all on its own. Young people are already avoiding flight training and this will, even in a shrinking airline world, eventually result in a pilot shortage and subsequent raising of wages to above starvation levels, or at least to the point where new pilots may have a chance to pay off their student loans and move out of their mom's basement.
Personally I don't see any other way to solve this problem than market forces, but until it does that cadre of young people coming in the door to aviation and getting involved in general aviation as a hobby or as a stepping stone to that hoped-for airline career won't be there.