The airline industry urgently needs pilots – and Alaska is no exception. This spring alone, Alaska Airlines became the latest company to blame an ongoing shortage of pilots for canceled and delayed flights.
Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates nearly 150,000 pilot vacancies that will need to be filled over the next decade. But finding new pilots remains an obstacle and it is not easy to enter the cockpit of a major airline.
Take Connor Saint-Laurent. He is 23 years old and comes from Anchorage. At the beginning of May, he was only 25 flying hours away from being able to take the exam for his commercial pilot’s license.
“Right now, I’m just building time, so I’m just cruising – you know, go to Talkeetna, grab some pizza, or just practice maneuvers on my own,” he said.
Time in the air, however, is only a fraction of the work.
“Once you start making sure you’re ready to do your lap, I’ll probably study 5+ hours, 6 hours a day,” St. Laurent said.
It took about three years for Saint-Laurent to get there. The Federal Aviation Administration requires 250 flight hours before prospective pilots can sit for their commercial check flight, and there’s also an oral exam they must pass. With the time commitment, it’s expensive.
St. Laurent departs from Fly Around Alaska, a Palmer-based flight school. But he started with a flying program in Montana, which he says costs about $40,000 a year.
Connor’s father, Leon, learned to fly in the military, then spent most of his career flying for a major airline. This is a route taken by about two-thirds of commercial pilots. But the military has had its own problems recruiting pilots and has redoubled its efforts to retain those it has.
Most commercial pilots now come from a civilian background – like Connor’s – which means they have to shell out time and money on their own. And that creates a bottleneck.
“I’m just chipping away at the hours, I feel like that’s kind of where everyone gets,” St. Laurent said.
There’s no clear data on what Alaska pilots need, but airlines are noticing a pinch. United Airlines opened its own flight school to train new pilots in February. And in March, Alaska Airlines became the latest company to announce a scholarship program for applicants who agree to fly for the company or for sister company Horizon Air upon graduation. The Seattle-based carrier did not respond to multiple maintenance requests.
Adam White directs the government and legislative affairs program for the Alaska Airmen’s Association, an advocacy group for pilots in Alaska. He says the industry has seen waves of pilot shortages before and knew this one was coming. The pandemic has just accelerated the process.
“In the late 80s, early 90s, we had a big exodus of Vietnamese-era pilots, and there was a bit of a crisis at that time,” White said. “Now we are reaching the mandatory retirement age for many other commercial pilots who came on board about this time.”
And there’s another problem – over a thousand hours of experience gap between when a pilot gets their commercial license and when they can work for an airline.
Many of these pilots start with smaller commercial carriers that carry mail or freight and do not have the same hour requirements. In Alaska, these companies typically transport supplies between villages off the highway system.
White said pilots on these carriers stayed with a company for two or three years before changing jobs, but that’s no longer the case.
“Sometimes they stay 6 months now because they’ve been able to gain enough experience to now have the opportunity to speak to an airline and the airline will hire them much sooner than they would have two, three, five years ago,” White said.
White said some companies are even recruiting older recreational pilots to fill pilot positions in the communities where they live.
The big challenge now, according to White, is getting young pilots to stay in Alaska. He says many regional flight operators in Alaska are starting to offer better benefits and higher salaries to try to address this issue.
And more and more organizations — like the Alaska Airmen’s Association — are handing out financial assistance to Alaskans to get into flight school. Some high schools in the state have also started offering flying lessons.
Connor St. Laurent said he wants to fly for a major airline one day, but he’s not trying to leave Alaska anytime soon. He’s just focused on walking right in front of him.
“You’re over the hill at 250 hours and you’re having this commercial check-up done,” he said. “You can finally say, ‘Hey, I could be getting paid right now to fly a plane.’ You can go earn money instead of spending it all and get paid to steal instead of paying to steal.
If the current economic outlook is any indication, his job prospects are good.