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WANTED: Flight instructors

Pilot shortages in airline industry and military erode teacher numbers

By Michael Benedict
Herald Staff Writer

Top-quality flight instructors at UND and other flight schools are in high demand, as the most skilled are being sought to fill a shortage of pilots in the airline industry.

The military is also feeling the pinch, with the Air Force now short about 1,200 pilots.

"Have we lost key staff members? Yes, we have," said Al Palmer, the new director of flight operations at UND's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. "Is it a challenge to recruit? Yes, it is."

Palmer said the school wants to lose 100 percent of its junior instructors, placing them in the airline industry.

These instructors are current students or recent graduates of the school who came to UND to become pilots. As students, most become instructors between their sophomore and junior years. They remain instructors at UND for six to 12 months after they graduate, as they seek pilot positions.

The loss that does concern UND, however, is the deflection of several managing instructors to higher airline salaries. These pilots are considered long-term instructors and usually stay at UND from five to 15 years.

Shortage Several factors contribute to the pilot shortage and the increasing airline demand on aviation schools and the military.

"(Air Force pilots) are highly qualified and highly sought after individuals," said Col. Tony Haney, operations group commander of the 319th Air Refueling Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base. "The Air Force has been and will always be a source to the airline industry."

Major airlines once recruited 80 percent of their pilots from the military, but budgets shrank after the Gulf War, said Palmer, a former Air Force member. He's now a support group commander in the Air National Guard.

With the military training fewer pilots, major airlines recruit 80 percent of their pilots from regional carriers, putting more demand on universities and nonuniversity flight schools like GFK Flight Support at Grand Forks International Airport.

These schools supply the regional carriers. "It's like a food chain. The nationals are on top of the food chain," Palmer said.

More loss GFK Flight Support loses about 90 percent of its instructors to regional airlines each year, said Gary Gunkel, chief flight instructor at the airport school. Also, some instructors are current or recent students at UND Aerospace.

"Flight schools across the country are unable to find instructors," Gunkel said. "We're lucky to be located right by the University of North Dakota."

Another factor is the booming economy.

More people are buying airline tickets, leading to growth in the industry and an increase in the number of pilots flying the nation's passenger and cargo planes. The number of pilots flying these planes grew from 97,000 in 1988 to 134,612 in 1998.

The last big factor is retirements.

About 58,000 pilots will retire in the next 20 years, increasing the demand for the next 20 years.

Military The military doesn't face high-pressure recruitment from regional airlines. Military pilots are recruited directly by major airlines because of their experience in flying high-quality aircraft, Palmer said.

To compete with the private-sector demand, Haney said, the Air Force continues to increase incentive programs for its pilots. Depending on the level of individual commitments, the Air Force, for example, offers its pilots up to $25,000 in yearly bonuses.

Haney said he's had offers, but he won't move to the private sector because appreciation is based on tenure rather than merit. The Air Force also retains pilots because they enjoy serving their country, he said.

Seed-corn feeding Once, pilots stayed at regional carriers for about five to seven years, but with pressure from larger airlines, the average regional pilot tenure is now about 26 months.

These smaller carriers are struggling to find pilots for their own survival, but many airlines, especially major airlines, are now limiting flights to keep the industry afloat.

The UND director said the process is similar to what farmers once called seed-corn feeding.

If seed corn is consumed, there's no corn to plant next year. If the majors and regionals take too many flight instructors, who will instruct future pilots?

He said recent cancellations of hundreds of flights by United Airlines is, in part, an example of an airline deciding to park planes instead of "eating" the supply of instructors. The airline also blames its problems on its pilots who don't want overtime.

The United pilots accuse the airline of poor planning.

The pilot shortage isn't expected to ease for many years, but it's not all doom and gloom. The shortage is raising salaries and making the industry more attractive to future pilots, Palmer said.

Top airline salaries to fly the most expensive jets are about $329 an hour. The bottom pay at a regional carrier is about $25,000 a year.

With the new pilot interest, UND's aerospace school is seeing a steep increase in its enrollment and flight schedule.

The school had 600 students on the flight schedule -- the number of aviation majors flying -- in the fall of 1999 and 800 students by the next spring. The number is expected to exceed 850 this fall.

The school has a total enrollment of about 1,200 majors.

Source: Grand Forks Herald August 21, 2000