National pilot shortage could leave valley air grounded

Small regional airlines to take brunt of impact

By Aimee Eaton

A national airline pilot shortage could have large impacts on small airports like the Gunnison–Crested Butte Regional Airport within the next 10 years.

Airline consultant Kent Myers, speaking to the Gunnison Valley Regional Transportation Authority at the May 12 meeting, said approximately 144 smaller airports could see reductions in flights due to a lack of available pilots. Of those airports, at least 11 are in Colorado.

“The airlines have said we can’t fly what your people want, regardless of what you want to pay us, because we have no pilots,” Myers told the RTA board. “They are coming into a situation where they have the planes sitting on the ground, but they have no pilots.”

The shortage is related both to the mandatory retirement age of 65 and to changes in training and recruitment of new pilots.

According to research from the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences, corroborated by the airline industry, roughly 50,000 new pilots will need to enter the skies before 2026 if the shortage is to be averted.

Hitting that number seems unlikely unless radical action is taken, said Myers.

“In addition to a college education, it takes three to seven years to become a pilot in the U.S. and the starting wage is around $50,000,” said Myers, who added that once a pilot successfully graduates from flight school there is little to stop him or her from hiring on with an international airline where the work load is often less and the pay more.

“Trump needs to call the four CEOs of the major airlines into his office and tell them to invest in human capital and start training pilots,” said Myers. “Fifty percent of all operations in this country are on regional jets. There is a huge economic impact, and it will impact us.”

When the industry is flush with pilots it is standard for new pilots to start out with regional airlines, where they fly as co-pilots. After a few years they captain their own smaller regional aircraft, then eventually move on to co-piloting large planes for major airlines. The growth to captaining a large airplane can often take more than a decade.

A lack of staffing, however, means pilots could likely be routed directly to major carriers where the need for flights is greatest, leaving the regional carriers grounded. That translates to fewer flights into small airports such as Gunnison–Crested Butte.

“If this shortage does happen it could create a situation where the money to pay for the flights is there but we can’t get the flights because of the lack of pilots,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex. “It will be a new paradigm.”

Regardless of whether the shortage becomes a reality, Truex said the RTA will work hard to ensure that air service continues to take place in the Gunnison Valley.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said, “but we’re working with the airlines to make sure we can continue to bring people in and out of the Gunnison airport.”

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