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Shortage of pilots attracts attention of industry

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota researchers are forecasting a shortage of more than 14,000 pilots in 10 years, a figure that highlights a growing concern among those in the aviation industry.

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Paul Janowicz, center, and David Jannui conduct a flight simulation test at Ryan Hall at UND in Grand Forks, ND on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota researchers are forecasting a shortage of more than 14,000 pilots in 10 years, a figure that highlights a growing concern among those in the aviation industry.

Stakeholders from across the industry cite a number of factors for the deficit, from new federal regulations to starting pay at smaller regional airlines.

Regardless of the cause, the shortage appears to already have hit those regional airlines.

Great Lakes Airlines cited a pilot shortage when it announced its decision to suspend service at Devils Lake and Jamestown, in 2014. John Nord, manager of the Devils Lake Regional Airport, said they haven't had any missed flights because of a lack of pilots since SkyWest Airlines came to town.

Ryan Riesinger, executive director at the Grand Forks International Airport, said the issue hasn't affected its existing service. But he said it could be an obstacle to the airports, such as Grand Forks adding additional flights.

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"I think partially because of pilots, but also just because of the number of aircraft, there are limitations on the number of routes they can fly," Riesinger said.

Keeping pace

Elizabeth Bjerke, chairwoman of the department of aviation at UND, said the recession, a federal change in the pilot retirement age from 60 to 65 and high oil prices halted what was expected to be a pilot shortage in 2009. But those trends are reversing.

"Now we're really seeing that pilot shortage in the U.S., and they've been seeing it for years in other parts of the world," she said.

Bjerke also cited a federal law that requires commercial airline pilots -- including first officers -- to obtain an airline transport pilot certificate, which necessitates 1,500 hours of flight time. The Federal Aviation Administration allows UND students to get a "restricted ATP" with 1,000 hours, however.

Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, wrote in the organization's magazine earlier this year that "new ATP, commercial and private pilot certificates (are) failing to keep pace with mandated" retirements at major airlines.

"Major airlines draw from regional airlines to fill these positions, and the related attrition could exceed the entire regional airline pilot workforce within a decade, imperiling air service to small (and) medium-sized (airports) nationwide," she added.

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A UND study predicted the U.S. airline fleet will have a deficit of 14,439 pilots by 2026.

But there are some signs of improvement. The number of applicants to UND's commercial aviation program jumped to 495 this year from 397 in 2015, according to the UND study led by Associate Professor James Higgins.

"I'm hoping that we're attracting more young people into the career because the opportunities are amazing right now," Bjerke said.

But Bjerke acknowledged the cost of flight training remains a challenge. And Patrick Smith, a pilot based in Boston who runs a popular blog on the aviation industry, said that long and costly process, combined with the low pay at many regionals, deters potential pilots.

"One of the wild cards here is your average wannabe pilot's willingness to suffer for his art, so to speak," Smith said. "There's never been a shortage of pilots willing to basically work for nothing. It's only pretty recently that I've sensed a change there."

Smith believes that has to do with pilots realizing working for a regional airline isn't necessarily a "temp job" anymore because that sector of the industry has grown significantly.

And while regional airlines are already feeling the pinch, Bjerke said major airlines are concerned as well.


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Reversing the trend

Black said airlines are taking on a number of ideas to meet the shortage, including partnering with primary training institutions, offering tuition reimbursement and establishing "flow programs" that offer a defined career and pay progression.

On top of cost and affordability issues, Bjerke said it will be important to spread the word about the opportunities in the aviation industry. She said pay at regional airlines has improved, and some young alumni are making the leap to major airlines fairly quickly.

Bjerke pointed to the example of Swayne Martin, a commercial aviation student at UND who maintains a website and YouTube channel about his flight training. One popular video shows him and his friends flying from Grand Forks to Fargo to pick up an order of Chipotle.

Martin hopes his online efforts help inspire more people to choose aviation as a career.

"People my age aren't necessarily looking to become a pilot just from a monetary standpoint," he said. "It ends up being something that somebody is interested in because they love to fly or love to travel, more so than just because it's a job."

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