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Can Our Industry Compete for Pilots?

Posted 3 years 121 days ago ago by Admin

Over the last four years there has been a significant increase in median pay for most helicopter pilots across the board. Good news right? Interestingly though, the industry is struggling to attract and retain experienced pilots. Why?

There are several factors impacting the tightening labor market. First, for the past few years, we have been creating pilots at a deficit as compared to how many are leaving the industry due to retirements and other factors. Despite U.S. fleets slowly growing, we have seen the number of working helicopter pilots drop from 19,000 to approximately 15,000. Next the “shrinking military” trend has reversed and less helicopter pilots are leaving service for the civilian sector. Finally, there’s the airline hiring efforts that are taking hundreds of helicopter pilots per year out of the industry.

Here Come the Airlines

Since the FAA adjusted the First Officer experience minimums upward to 1,500 hours, the airline industry has spiraled into a pilot shortage of epic proportions. Back in 2016 several of the airlines stumbled onto a new source of experienced pilots . . . the helicopter industry. "It's an untapped pool of pilots that hadn't been brought to anyone's attention before," Envoy pilot recruiter Megan Liotta said in a January 2019 Reuters article. So, the airlines are stripping off more than 500 military and civilian helicopter pilots per year. American Airlines' regional carrier, Envoy, said more than a quarter of its 701 new pilots in 2018 came from military helicopters, compared with 11% in 2017 and 5% in 2016. It plans to hire 626 pilots in 2019, with about a quarter of those expected to come through its rotor transition program.

Is it all about the “Benjamins?”

One thing’s for sure; most every good helicopter pilot is employed, and operators will have to get creative in order to retain them. At the moment, the best way to attract a pilot from his or her current job is to offer more money or better working conditions (e.g. schedule, location). And how do we know this? Because we asked hundreds of pilots in the development of this issue’s “2018 -2019 U.S. Pilot Salary and Benefits Survey.” According to our survey, according to the majority of respondents, their number one priority is salary. To learn more about pilot salaries by sector, ratings, and experience, check out the feature that begins on page 50.

I have personally asked several pilots who have made the rotor-to-airline transition why they did it. The common themes revolve around three areas:

  1. Higher long-term earning potential. Helicopter pilots typically enjoy higher pay in the early part of their career, but top out quickly and reach a plateau. In the airlines, a captain for a major airline can expect to be earning $200,000 - $300,000 annually in approximately 10-12 years.

  2. Opportunity to become dual-rated on the airline’s dime. Airlines are providing $20,000 - $50,000 for helicopter pilots to get their fixed-wing multi-engine ATP certificates.

  3. Better retirement benefits.

Better retirement benefits.

How our industry responds to this personnel tug-of-war is yet to be seen, but there are real initiatives underway by organizations like the Helicopter Foundation International’s Heli-Futures committee, Aviation Futures, and the Skypath Pilot Development Program started by Sundance Helicopters, so stay tuned!