Ongoing pilot shortage takes its toll on flight instructor levels at UND
GRAND FORKS—As the ongoing pilot shortage continues to take a toll on regional airlines and other parts of the industry, the shortage also is having an effect on those who train up-and-coming pilots at UND.
Kent Lovelace, a UND aviation professor who also deals with different parts of the industry for the university, said UND in 2009 did a forecast for the National Defense Transportation Program that indicated there would be a shortage of available pilots in the coming years.
The study, Lovelace said, was met with scrutiny and suspicion.
"They didn't believe it was going to happen," he said. "Well, now they believe us."
Lovelace said for about 10 years, the industry became rather "stagnant," with little hiring occurring across airlines as a whole, which discouraged some people from entering the profession. The average age of a pilot and the number of pilots retiring also has been going up, which exacerbates the problem, Lovelace said.
The shortage has caused airlines to reduce schedules to certain cities and, in some rare cases, caused regional airlines to shut down completely. It also has had an effect in the corporate arena, the Air Force and other areas.
"The problem is you don't create a qualified airline pilot in six months," Lovelace said. "It takes years. The train's already left the station, so the question is, can you catch up to the train?"
The effects of the pilot shortage stretch beyond regional airlines and those already flying professionally, however.
The number of flight instructors, those who train the world's pilots, has decreased across the country as regional airlines try to gobble up every pilot they can.
"Flight instructors and pilots are in the same family," said Jeremy Roesler, chief flight instructor at UND. "Flight instructors are usually in training to build experience so they can become an airline pilot, so there's a direct link. So, if you have a pilot shortage you're going to have a flight instructor shortage."
The shortage has had an effect on UND students, but Roesler said they are putting "in a lot of effort" to try to minimize that. Roesler noted that flight training is unique because it requires countless hours of one-on-one training between an instructor and a student.
"When you have a flight instructor shortage, that means the flight instructors are working with more students, which means their time availability is less than what it'd normally be," he said.
Roesler said the program has been short of flight instructors for about 10 years. Typically, the university would like to have 220 instructors but currently has 170, he said.
Flight instructors typically stay with the university about 14 months before moving on to a regional airline or another job, Roesler said. Incentivizing flight instructors to stay longer could have an effect on student fees, he said, adding it is a "give-and-take relationship."
The increasing salaries at regional airlines over the past few years also have made retaining instructors difficult, Roesler said.
"When you are going to be paid $60,000 to go fly a jet around around the country, it's very tough to keep somebody in Grand Forks," he said.
Lovelace said at one time, pay levels in the industry were quite low, often below $30,000 for a regional pilot. Now that number has started to rise to more than $60,000, and the salary number continues to go up as pilots climb the ladder through the industry.
There also has been an increased interest in the aviation program at UND as salaries go up.
Lovelace said there's about 900 admitted students to next year's aviation program, noting that number is just admitted students and that it's highly unlikely that many students will show up. But, the university still expects to have a record number of enrolled students this fall, he said.
Lovelace said it's good there's an increased interest in the industry, but because airlines are scooping up so many young pilots, it becomes challenging for flight schools to keep their instructors.
Many schools across the country have had to cap enrollment to their flight programs because of decreasing numbers of flight instructors. Roesler said while UND has not capped enrollment to the program, over the past three to four years, they have had to close the registration period earlier than normal.
Roesler said students are very aware of what is going on in the industry and respect their time with the flight instructors that much more.
"We train people, we build them up so they can move on in the industry, and so the fact that our graduates are leaving for airlines and great jobs out there, that is a compliment to the program. And we're not going to stand in the way of that," Roesler said. "But it's a challenge in trying to manage our student body and ensuring that they have a good opportunity to get their training done, which they do today with just a lot of adjustments and awareness of what's going on."