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Pilot Shortage and Retention: Barriers and Solutions

Posted 3 years 355 days ago ago by Admin

Make no mistake, our industry is going through changes of such magnitude that if ignored, unquestioned, and misinterpreted,  will have severe and far reaching consequences for all helicopter industry businesses and affiliated organizations. While some of us may not be feeling the consequences as much as others right now, that is not cause for relief—it is a cause for awareness, planning, and change. As inevitably as the sun rises, we will all feel the effects of this seismic shift in the years to come and those who do not prepare will have an uncertain future.

Let us also be clear from the outset that definitions are important. The term “pilot shortage” has been used out of context for many years to the chagrin of many. Not properly defining the term, has created misinterpretation, exaggeration, and erroneous statements. Overall helicopter pilot numbers in the United States have been largely unchanged for the last 10 years with a high of 15,566 in 2014 to a low of 15,033 in 2018 and an overall 3.5 % variance up and down in the last decade. Actual numbers of new helicopter pilot license issuances in the U.S. have had a far more pronounced decline though, from a high of 3,754 in 2014 to a low of 2,367 in 2018. That is a variance and overall reduction from a high of 37%. However, what these numbers do not tell us, is how many of these license holders, should they be commercially certificated, are actively involved in helicopter flying. They could have gone to fly in the fixed-wing world, taken a career break or even left the industry altogether to pursue another line of work. The point is that statistics can only tell us so much and must be viewed with a skeptical, analytical, and educated mind. Another important issue that is not answered by raw statistics alone is just how many of the new certificate holders will actually be staying and flying in the U.S. domestic market post-checkride. A big proportion of our flight schools, especially the large ones, gain a significant amount of their income by training foreign students. Now, while some of these may stay for a year or so afterwards on a CPT/OPT program as active flight instructors, a lot will return home to fly in their native countries. This is an important aspect to consider when looking at the relative health of our active domestic pilot pool.

There are, in this author’s view, three main challenges that are at the root of the current state of our industry: funding, retention, and attraction. There is still not adequate access to funds for potential students,as the industry is losing too many pilots to the fixed-wing and other sectors and not enough new pilots are getting produced domestically. Cumulatively together, the net result it there are not enough active rotor pilots in the industry, and more disturbingly, not enough high quality, commercially-rated new ones being created.

Funding for students has long been an issue, in recent memory, stemming from the financial crisis of 2008. After that cataclysmic event, banks and other financial institutions were reluctant, or even unable, to provide any real and quantifiable monetary assistance. Indeed, I would go so far to say that it is one of, if not the biggest, barrier to gaining new students for my company, Anthelion Helicopters. So many potential students love the concept of becoming a career pilot following their demo but simply have no way of funding the dream. Third party vendors, such as Pilot Finance, are an option but are restrictive and are not really geared towards full-time applicant training.  Scholarships are out there, but again for the minority. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, while theoretically available to veterans has a very uncertain future and is notoriously hard to acquire and manage.

Pilot retention is a multi-faceted issue. It has many elements, including the allure of the fixed-wing industry and other careers, company culture, and general pay and conditions. The exodus of pilots to the airlines is an evolving issue and arguably stems from the meteoric rise of low-cost carriers across the globe (especially in Asia, Europe, and the United States) over the last decade or so. Put simply, the demand for airplane pilots across the global industry has exceeded supply. Over the last 18 months, that industry has turned its wanting gaze upon the helicopter sector as a lucrative and accessible source of aviators. Rotorcraft pilot licenses are relatively easily converted to flying airline aircraft. So, the airlines have been systematically and aggressively targeting all tiers of the helicopter industry; from the entry level people vying to gain Private licenses, right through to experienced multi-thousand-hour helicopter pilots. By offering lucrative salaries, fast career progression, better working conditions, and even scholarships for learning, airlines are dangling some very enticing “carrots” to helicopter aviators. The helicopter industry, in this author’s view, has thus far not offered a viable counter to this new existential threat.

The effect on our company has been an interesting one,  with wider implications than first might appear. As companies start to see quality pilots leaving, it has put even more pressure on their respective recruitment pipelines. With EMS companies lowering their entry hour requirements in many cases, this has caused some pilots to leave other traditionally preceding commercial jobs such as those in the Grand Canyon earlier than they originally would have done. The result now is that many of these commercial operators at this first tier are lowering their hour requirements for initial hire to well below the traditional 1,000-hour pilot-in-command (PIC) minimums. We have seen pilots leaving with well under 800 hours PIC time, which would have been against the established norm a few years ago. It should be noted that while certain Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) accredited operators cannot do this below 1,000 hours, others who are not TOPS certified can. There is a sizable and vocal debate as to whether this trend is potentially putting safety at risk with less qualified pilots getting in larger aircraft sooner than they should just to fill intake quotas and satisfy the bottom line. Of course, this is a broad statement, as the standards and qualities of pilots produced across the U.S. has, and probably will always, vary wildly; the number of hours does not guarantee quality and capability. The FAA regulatory process of training under Part 61 has arguably never been a system that promoted and produced a consistent source of quality as it is focused mainly on minimum completion standards, with little regard for the process of how to get there and minimal control over the continuity of the training process. Part 141 schools, such as ours, are generally held to a higher standard with more control over content and course structure. Yet, despite this caveat, companies have, in this author's view, been lowering the standards of entry both in quantitative hour requirements and overall qualitative pilot aptitudes due to a shrinking pilot pool.

The flipside to the retention question is the issue of attracting pilots to our industry and is arguably the cumulation of the content of the last two sections. On the one hand it could be argued that this is an opportune time for a prospective pilot to be coming into our industry. A “pilot shortage” gives new entrants the potential to advance quickly, be more picky about where they go, and even demand better pay and conditions. On the other hand, potential entrants are more likely to pick another career where the payback from $70,000-plus of investment is quicker, the career path is more structured and certain, and where they don’t have to work as an impoverished flight instructor to “pay their dues” for as long. Certainly, this is a substantial issue for my company, as the cost of living in Southern California  makes it difficult to survive comfortably on flight instructor pay. Even though we have taken steps to change our structure, guaranteeing a minimum number of paid hours per week. The cold hard truth is that however much we think our pilots deserve more, the bottom line will not facilitate this. We simply cannot charge what we need to for R22, Cabri G2 and R44 flying to make the margins whereby instructors can get paid a wage representative of their skill level and money invested. Our industry structure in not set up for sustained success in this regard. We charge too little for training compared to the rest of the world and operate on too-small margins; that makes it difficult or impossible to pay more and become more attractive to people wanting to come in. It should not be this way. The simple love of flying is not enough anymore in a highly competitive landscape to attract the right kind of people to be a helicopter pilot.

Suggested Solutions

Considering these challenges what viable solutions can be put forward to help? What can the industry do collectively and what can we do individually to ensure our sector continues to succeed? I am sure all of us have opinions on the matter. I am convinced that, collectively, we can find workable and long-term solutions. I submit the funding crisis should be viewed as a pan-industry issue, one that will need the support, active participation, and contribution from the top of the industry. One plausible idea could be that larger operators, such as Air Methods, Metro Aviation, Bristow, ERA, and PHI could conceivably jointly fund a scholarship/grant/loan program specifically dedicated to providing career loans to qualifying students. In effect, they could very well be supporting the development of their respective future employees. Just as companies such as Goldman Sachs provides support to small businesses, helping them grow, and investing in the future of what could be their customers, these helicopter companies could do similarly. Pan-industry cooperation at this level would directly and meaningfully combat the attraction of the fixed-wing industry and help drive the engine that is flight training schools by attracting new students that would stay in the domestic market.  

Attraction and retention solutions all center around making our industry more enticing to come to and good enough to stay in. Fostering strong company cultures is vitally important to individual companies. It cannot just be a buzzword, the results need to be both meaningful and tangible, for research has proven that employees are far more likely to stay if the culture is right.  Freer movement of pilots around the industry and viable career pipelines are also essential. We should have more vertical integration for continued promotion of good pilots between organizations at different levels rather than a fractured traditional “tier” system. These career pipelines are beneficial to all. On the one hand, the flight schools have a bigger sales pitch to potential students whereby they can offer a viable and structured way for applicants to get paid back on their original investment and be earning good wages in a defined time. On the other hand, commercial organizations have a filtered and measurable constant supply of quality pilots. Culture and retention are also aided by creating a “family” atmosphere through the pipeline whereby long-term loyalty is earned over time from employees as they progress up the training and career chain. Indeed, we are working on such a scheme right now with a partner in, what we both regard, as a win-win scenario.

We need to change; we have to change. I fear if we don’t we will not recognize our industry in the years to come that so many of us have spent the majority of our adult lives in. We are too set in our ways, too constrained by the past of maintaining the “it has always been this way” fractured, non-integrated, tiered industry set-up. We do not ask enough questions, do not challenge or think widely enough, do not work well enough together, nor do we put aside our ingrained mistrust and egos. Albert Einstein said: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.'' Even though he was not a helicopter man, Einstein had a good point, one that I sincerely hope we will all collectively hear, understand, and act upon.