Shrinking Pool of Future Pilots Keeps Major Airlines on Edge

  • Study shows deficit of 15,000 by 2026 as fewer choose career
  • Regional carriers already reeling from aviator shortage

After coping with terrorism, bankruptcies and consolidation, the largest U.S. airlines are facing a new problem: They may start running out of pilots in as soon as three years.

That looming pilot deficit will soar to 15,000 by 2026, according to a study by the University of North Dakota’s Aviation Department, as more captains reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 and fewer young people choose commercial aviation as a profession. And that’s in an industry where captains on the biggest international jets average more than $200,000 a year — with some pushing $300,000.

A pilot shortage is already the bane of the often low-paying regional carriers that ferry passengers from smaller airports to hubs operated by American, Delta and other major airlines. That’s worrisome for the major carriers because they typically use the smaller operators as a pipeline for hiring.

“That is one of the things in my job I get to worry about every day and when I go to bed at night,” said Greg Muccio, a senior manager at Southwest Airlines Co. “The biggest problem is a general lack of interest in folks pursuing this as a career anymore. That’s what puts us in the most jeopardy.”

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