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June 9, 2014

UAA aviation students seek to influence future of commercial piloting

In the halcyon days of the aviation industry, flight training and flying in the military created a viable career pathway into commercial airline piloting. Back then, in the ’60s and ’70s, commercial piloting promised a secure future, a more than comfortable income, and perhaps even a little glamour. Former military personnel fed the commercial industry with the majority of its piloting workforce.

Brett Laichak and Melissa Lee
Aviation students Brett Laichak and Melissa Lee
traveled to Washington, D.C. to share their
concerns regarding projected pilot shortages
with government officials and airline industry
leaders.
Then, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 ushered in competition and chaos. The act removed government control over fares, routes and market entry of new airlines from commercial aviation. Effects included the bankruptcy of nine major carriers and more than 100 small airlines. While passengers indeed benefitted from reduced fares, gone also were the days of inclusion of a hot meal, beverages and room to stretch out one’s legs.

Stephen Breyer, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice, was an aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1970s. The two worked together to bring about airline deregulation. Reflecting on the result of the deregulation act in a 2011 op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek, Breyer noted that major reforms bring about new, sometimes unforeseen, problems. He added that no one foresaw the industry’s spectacular growth or the extent to which change might unfairly harm workers in the industry.

How differently might the policymakers have created reform, had they had a sage to forecast some of the drastic and damaging effects of their reform on the industry and its workers?

Fast forward to today, and an entirely new rack of challenges besets the commercial airline industry. Now former military pilots who make the transition to commercial flight form a minority of the career pipeline. The kid who looks to the skies, falls in love with the idea of flight and wants to grow up to fly in today’s world will need an ironclad commitment to the dream, just as Brett Laichak, Melissa Lee and their fellow UAA Community & Technical College (CTC) aviation students seem to have.

As part of their research project for their senior capstone course, the students discovered that the industry that flies the skies has recently edged up to a new and precipitous tipping point that, without strategic intervention, will mean a significant shortage of pilots. In fact, regional airlines are already experiencing significant shortages in needed pilots. Factors leading to declining supply include:

–An aging piloting workforce reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65.
–Requirement of six times as many flight hours to serve as a copilot today compared to one year ago.
–Increased rest requirements of flight-crew members.
–Declining numbers of new pilots entering the career pathway.
–Global and national expansion of the commercial airline industry.
–Increased hiring of U.S. pilots by foreign airlines from nations experiencing high growth in aviation, such as China and India.

While studying and training for piloting today poses dramatic new challenges, one advantage to riding the tipping point is an opportunity to create a real and lasting impact on how things land. Lee and Laichak grasped this opportunity to play the role of sage for policymakers at the source during a trip to Washington, D.C. in early April 2014.

Alaska Airlines logo
In order to fund the mission, the students submitted a proposal on the pilot shortage to compete for an Alaska Airlines voucher that supports special UAA projects. Proposals must demonstrate how the project will advance UAA’s strategic goals, as well as spotlight Alaska Airlines. The Office of University Advancement, acting as stewards of the vouchers, awarded the students with one, while CTC’s Aviation Technology Division co-sponsored another airline ticket. The travel support testifies to the quality and importance of the students’ work.

Over the course of three days, the two students met with government officials who have the power to influence commercial aviation reforms, including Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young of Alaska along with members of their staff who specialize in aviation. They also met with key industry officials such as Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at Airlines for America; Leslie Smith, air transportation division manager and Jodi Baker deputy assistant manager for the Federal Aviation Administration Flight Standards Service Division; and Roger Cohen, Regional Airline Association president.

They plied the officials with the piloting shortage forecasts that were definitely not on the policymakers’ radar. Sounding the alarm was one mission for Lee and Laichak; proposing viable solutions was another. Borrowing a standard from some other countries, the students suggested adopting the multi-crew pilot’s license in the U.S., which would allow for the building of flight hours in part through more simulation training. If approved by the FAA, it could be another pathway to the restricted airline transport pilot certificate, which is required for pilots who serve as first officers for airlines providing scheduled passenger service.

Another solution the students carried forward to congressional and industry leaders was to reduce the current flight-hour minimums since there is no evidence base that links a higher flight-hour requirement to increased safety. Finally, the students suggested that an airline pilot sponsorship program, whereby the airline selects pilot candidates and pays for their flight training in return for a guaranteed term of contract at reduced wages, would be a viable path from training to flying career.

Our UAA CTC sages made impact.

Melissa Lee and Brett Laichak
Brett Laichak and Melissa Lee give
their final presentation for their
senior capstone aviation course.
“Our meeting with Don Young spurred a request for follow-up information on the pilot shortage that would help him ask the hard, sharp questions in a letter to the FAA,” said Laichak.

“Congressman Young will task the Government Accountability Office to investigate FAA’s new air traffic control hiring practices,” noted Lee.

The recent reform that increased the flight hour requirement to 1,500 before a pilot can climb into the cockpit creates a chasm between the hours required to graduate from a piloting program to the new standard. The training costs to fill that gap are unaffordable. Newly minted commercial pilots find themselves saddled with training debt to achieve the required certifications. Short of that, many pilots accumulate the hours by flight instructing or flying unscheduled carriers, jobs at wages that often don’t support both a living and paying back student loans.

CTC’s aviation students show a determination to not only persist to achieve their aviation career goals, but also to make the process a more realistic one for future piloting students. Thanks at least in part to our dedicated students, Alaska’s congressional delegation is now aware of the impact of recent reforms and is armed with some possible solutions.

Story by Clarice Dickess, Grants and Research Specialist, UAA Community & Technical College