UND students eyeing new FAA rules as future pilotsGRAND FORKS — Approaching his last semester of classes at University of North Dakota, aviation student Randy Lewis hopes to join a regional airline but isn’t sure his friends will follow.
By: Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications
GRAND FORKS — Approaching his last semester of classes at University of North Dakota, aviation student Randy Lewis hopes to join a regional airline but isn’t sure his friends will follow.
With thousands of U.S. airline pilots set to retire as early as this year, the projected shortfall puts more pressure on the industry and should offer more opportunities for aviation graduates.
“I’m very excited because that means there’s going to be higher quality jobs for students like me,” Lewis said. But, he added, “If there’s going to be a lot of requirements to get to that initial job, I don’t think some of my friends are going to stick around and wait for it.”
He’s referring to plans by the Federal Aviation Administration to toughen requirements for new pilots next summer, increasing the number of hours of flight time new pilots need from 250 hours to 1,500 hours.
If the agency goes through with that plan, Lewis, a part-time flight instructor for UND, will have to work full-time through the summer as an instructor to meet the requirements before entering the field next December.
Currently, co-pilots on airliners, typically new pilots paired with a more experienced captain, must have a commercial pilot certificate with 250 hours of flight experience. Under the FAA plan, they would have to have an airline transport pilot certificate, the most advanced certificate given by the agency, which requires 1,500 hours.
That means a co-pilot would have to have as many flying hours as a captain.
The FAA touts the proposal as a way to increase safety, as mandated by the FAA extension act of 2010.
Administrators at UND’s School of Aerospace Sciences aren’t too concerned about the impact of the new requirements because its students wouldn’t be impacted as much.
The FAA said that airline co-pilots would only need 1,000 hours of flight experience if they graduate from a four-year accredited institution and are trained to fly by a school affiliated with that institution. UND student pilots would meet both requirements. Still, that would be four times more than what they need now as a new airline pilot.
Military pilots can get by with 750 hours.
Also, UND Aerospace administrators say the new requirements may not be too much of a stretch for their students.
Full-time flight instructors here accumulate as many as 50 hours a week, while part-time instructors, often hired by the university while they’re still students, can accumulate about 10 to 15 hours a week flying. A typical aviation student graduates with a minimum of 250 hours of flying time.
“We’re probably in the best shape of any of the flight schools to have our students who become instructors reach that level of experience,” said Bruce Smith, UND Aerospace dean.
Aviation student Taylor Ortega, 22, said that, while the new requirements give students more experience, it’s not necessarily the right kind.
“Flying out of a small airplane with four seats is a lot different than flying a jet with hundreds, so I don’t think it’s gonna help,” he said. “I think it’s more important to have a quality of training rather than a specific quantity.”
A UND study found additional flight time is not a good predictor of pilot performance, and the FAA’s hourly rule includes 500 hours of cross-country time that may take five years for students to build.
The FAA proposal arrives as the airline industry is seeing high attrition rates and waning interest in aviation as a career by both commercial and military pilots.
Major airlines will need to hire 38,178 pilots through 2030 to cover retirements and other departures for all commercial operations, according to the UND study. That’s lower than the 60,000 that an earlier study projected would be needed by 2025; the industry growth forecasted by the FAA is lower.
But it’s more than the number of potential replacements.
There are 18,000 regional pilots right now, and those numbers don’t match up, said Kent Lovelace, chairman of UND’s aviation department, who contributed research for the study.
“The career progression is that somebody will get onto a regional airline and move onto a major airline,” he said.
Interest in aviation degrees has declined steadily around the nation, a trend UND has seen.
Last year, the number of UND commercial aviation graduates was half of that in 2005, said Lovelace. Entry level pay for pilots, which can be around $20,000, also affects student interest in the industry, he said. The average debt load of a new pilot is more than $100,000, including tuition and training fees, he said.
“Fewer people are learning the craft, fewer people want to pursue it as a profession, and so what the 1,500 rule does is aggravate the situation,” he said. “It’s another obstacle.”
Last year, the FAA issued roughly 8,500 flight certificates, but an estimated 22 percent went to foreign students who have no intention of flying commercially for U.S. airlines, Lovelace said.
“Most are here through sponsored training and go back home,” he said, meaning training paid for by foreign airlines. “Potentially, that means only 78 percent of those are viable commercial pilots for the U.S. industry, both airline and charter and everything else.”
Some fear that the pilot shortage will lead to fewer flights from regional carriers, such as Skywest and Pinnacle, which serve Grand Forks on behalf of Delta Air Lines.
Patrick Dame, Grand Forks International Airport executive director, said there’s a small chance the community could see an impact. However, he attributes the change in the frequency of flights to the industry’s switch from 50-seat jets, which are less fuel-efficient, to larger planes.
“I think we bear as equal an opportunity as anywhere across the country that’s going to see an impact,” he said.
Ortega, who will graduate in December, said he’s still considering if he wants to enter the industry as a pilot. He’s completed a few aviation internships with large corporations, so he’s debating whether to work on the management side. The training alone can be a headache, he said.
But for most pilots, it’s about doing what you love, he said. “Most of us will fight through it to get to the final goal.”