FAA: Number of Student Pilots Down

The Federal Aviation Administration reports fewer Americans are learning to be pilots. With fewer flight students, commercial airlines may have trouble finding pilots. A shortage could restrict growth in the airline industry and could even affect the safety of air travel.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Fewer people are becoming student pilots, and the Federal Aviation Administration is projecting a 10-year low by 2011. A shortage of pilots could pose challenges, of course, for the airline industry, as Melanie Herschorn reports.

MELANIE HERSCHORN: It's a sunny Saturday morning and a handful of small planes are coming and going from the vast grassy landscape at Moyer Aviation. The regional airport is just outside Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Emily Loakes(ph) is a 19-year-old flight student who's starting the day doing what she loves: flying.

Ms. EMILY LOAKES: It's constantly what I think about. It's kind of like a sickness. I know that's going to be my career choice. Like, I just - that's the only thing I can see myself doing.

HERSCHORN: But Loakes is in the minority. Federal Aviation Administration statistics show the number of student pilots nationwide will drop to about 69,000 next year. That's a nearly 30 percent decrease in a decade.

Vern Moyer chairs the Flight School Association of North America and owns Moyer Aviation. He's been flying about 50 years and recalls a time before the Airline Deregulation Act went into effect. He says when the federal government stopped regulating fares and flight routes, the changes trickled down to pilot salaries.

Mr. VERN MOYER (Chairman, Flight School Association of North America): Before that, it was a really great, great career. Airline pilots back in the '90s were making - senior captains were making over $200,000 a year.

HERSCHORN: Moyer says pilots now have longer hours, lower wages, and fewer benefits. He says only about 20 percent of his flight students want to work in the commercial airline industry.

Mr. MOYER: And they're not all going to make it either, because of the commitment it's going to take - maybe 10 years.

HERSCHORN: Flight students are required to log as many as 1,500 flying hours before they can become airline pilots. Twenty-three-year-old Christopher Ashleman(ph) is doing what he can to get hours in the air. He's a full-time flight instructor and travels from his home in York, Pennsylvania to tow banners along Florida beaches.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ASHLEMAN (Fight Instructor): It's obviously unfeasible to buy the time, go out and rent an airplane, so you're forced to work for jobs like flight instructing, banner towing, flying skydivers, pipeline patrol. That's pretty much it.

HERSCHORN: Ashleman has racked up about $100,000 in loans to support his flying habit, but he isn't sure how he's going to pay it back. Pilot jobs can start at just $20,000 a year. When the economy does improve and helps boost the airline industry, a lack of incentives to become a pilot could lead to safety risks.

Mr. STEVE LOTT (International Air Transport Association): When airlines grow, you know, you can't just pick people off the street and put them in a cockpit of an aircraft.

HERSCHORN: That's Steve Lott. He's a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents commercial airlines. He says a smaller pool of qualified pilots could prevent airlines from expanding to new routes, and that could eventually hurt their bottom line. Lott says there's also concern a pilot shortage could force some airlines to lower their hiring requirements and bring on people with just the minimum experience mandated by the FAA.

Mr. LOTT: You need to have a lengthy training process and you need to keep that pipeline full of applicants and people going through the training process.

HERSCHORN: Flight schools are working to do just that. They're beefing up advertising and reaching out to youngsters, hoping to spark the next generation's interest in taking to the skies.

For NPR News, I'm Melanie Herschorn in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.