03 April 2011

Aviation's "elephant in the room"

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.


Ruth person said...

As a former flight instructor I can attest to this miserable state of affairs. It's easy to blame flight schools for gouging students and feeding them enough lies to keep the money flowing out of student pockets. It's easy to blame regulators for requiring more and more hours in order to qualify for a license. However, that doesn't change the fact that the wages of professional pilots do not match the much-hyped marketing that goes into this whole mess.
So, where does the blame belong? Everywhere I've mentioned but also with the starry-eyed students who have been fed a steady diet of movie and video game tripe. Think very very critically before undertaking any type of venture like this one. Ask yourself what you're trying to prove (yes you are trying to prove something) and then take a cold sober look at the whole situation. You may not like what you see but you'll at least not be in debt up to your eyeballs!

david said...

I call this the "glamour effect." Any profession that seems exciting or glamorous - anything you'd choose for the lead character in a romcom - attracts too many people, forcing average pay down (even if there's a token small percentage of high-profile winners): think novel writing, professional sports, law, acting, advertising, etc. The market can't fully correct for that, because it's a social issue.

Adam Hunt said...

David: It is curious that you bring that up, because the same AvWeb article reported: "Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association Intl., said the key to reaching the next generation is to find heroes they can look up to in the fields of science and technology, the way they look up to athletes and rock stars. He also suggested that GA needs to make better use of social media to reach young people."

But to my mind that doesn't address the issue and will just make what you term "glamour effect" worse and hence flood the market with more unemployed pilots, driving wages down to "free."

Michael Shaw said...

Here are some more thoughts...

I guess there is little, at least in the short run, that an individual can do to change the economics of the aviation industry. Are pilots going the way of the production line workers, that is, being replaced by machines and computers? We seem to be half way there now. Current planes seem pretty adept at navigation and landing without much human intervention.

With pilot's real wages falling one might think there is less incentive for the airlines and industry to develop the machines and computers to fly airplanes, but glass cockpits and automation seem to play an ever increasing role in today's airliners. What's next, Machines and computers already fly airplanes with remote human pilots, but will joe traveller want to be a passenger on an airliner without a human pilot on board? Current passengers don't appear willing to pay for that luxury, I for one often choose the least cost flight.

It won't be long before pilots will learn how to fly without real airplanes.

It is interesting that the air traffic controllers used to complain that they had to handle more than one plane full of paying passengers at a time, and therefor they should get the big bucks paid to the pilots. Do they still argue that?

Remember we used to have elevator operators, but they were replaced with buttons. Look out pilots!

Idle thinking, Michael Shaw

Adam Hunt said...

That is funny because the average air traffic controller in Canada today makes 2.5 times what the average airline pilot makes!

Having met with a number of the key players in the UAV industry in Canada I can tell you that their plans very much include airliners with no aircrew on board. Because they fly fixed routes it is much easier to do than UAV air combat is and we already have that! Now, will paying passengers get on a non-crewed airliner? I wouldn't, but then lots of people said they would never ride Vancouver's unmanned SkyTrain for the just the same reason, but it carries millions of people each month and there are very few who refuse to ride it.

Everyone keeps saying that the F-35 will be the last manned fighter, at least in the west. The last manned airliner is closer than you think.

Patrick said...

I was part of the 1970s, as a line man, dispatcher, flight Instructor, pay was low, work was hard, many promises and much hype. But I was vigilant and always had a backup career connected to aviation. Life’s pendulum swings from good to bad and back, so does the pendulum of salaries. Obviously discussion of the situation is important and will very gradually move that pendulum to sway the other way.
40+ years later, I must say my experiences as a pilot has always helped my employment. Aerospace is an amazing career! Not rich but having a lot of fun! My recommendation to younger generation is very similar to flying have a plan B, C, D... Find out which way the pendulum is swinging, but never ever give up flying!

Adam Hunt said...

There is some more recent news on this subject in Airline Pilots Fight For Pay by Glenn Pew. It seems that US Airways is suing its pilots for not flying, while the union says the aircraft are unsafe.