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.
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