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Go Fly Yourself

A white plane takes off against a blue sky
Ryan Vellinga

The national pilot shortage comes to Las Vegas

Speak to any pilot for long enough, and you’ll eventually hear a variation of the same lament — “There’s a shortage.” That shortage, as it turns out, has stubbornly persisted for more than a decade, though it’s ebbed and flowed in severity.

Then, the pandemic happened.

“(COVID-19) really kind of exacerbated the problem,” says Dan Bubb, a former airline pilot and current associate professor and coordinator of Academic Affairs at UNLV’s Honor College. “Now (airlines) are trying to really catch up and meet the needs of passenger air travel” as passenger numbers reach pre-pandemic levels.

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Catching up is easier said than done. According to what Las Vegas-based carrier Allegiant Air told news outlets last year, the American aviation industry was short about 17,000 pilots in 2023 — a figure that could double by 2032.

And in a city as reliant on airline passengers as Las Vegas, which is also home to the seventh-busiest airport in the nation, the shortages could impact tourism, as well as locals’ spring and summer travel plans.

The cause of the shortage, according to industry experts, is three concurrent factors: more pilot retirements, an expensive and lengthy training process for young aviators, and current union disputes.

THE COVID PANDEMIC had an immediate and painful impact on Nevada’s aviation industry: Harry Reid International Airport saw passenger counts drop 57 percent from 2019 to 2020. With less demand for flights in and out of the city, the demand for pilots also dropped.

“Historically it has been cyclical with pilots,” Bubb says. “But what’s unique with the situation today is, prior to COVID-19, we did have a pilot shortage. And then, of course, when COVID-19 happened, airlines offered early buyouts for many pilots who are pushing retirement — which, the retirement age according to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), is 65.”

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The retirement packages Bubb is referring to were offered to thousands of pilots early on in the pandemic — Delta alone urged 2,000 of its older pilots to retire in 2020. Combine this with predictions that more than half of the nation’s pilots will hit the FAA’s maximum age limit of 65 in the next 15 years, and you get experts’ concern that service to smaller airports will be affected. Case in point: Allegiant ended service to Reno in January, citing limited demand and crew numbers.

Ron Kelly, CEO of the Las Vegas Flight Academy (LVFA), puts it this way: “The shortage that already existed just got multiplied.”

Aviation experts discuss the pilot shortage and plane issues affecting Las Vegas and beyond

IN RESPONSE TO many late-career pilots handing in their wings, flight schools (many of which are local) are attempting to raise new ones in their place. The LVFA, which provides training for pilots in the final stage of commercial airline preparation, is one such school. Kelly knows from experience how important youth outreach is to increase pilot numbers. After a colorblindness diagnosis derailed his plans to become an astronaut, he turned his attention to fostering a love of aviation among the next generation, especially those underrepresented within the cockpit — less than three percent of current airline pilots are Black, and under 10 percent are female.

So, in addition to creating the LVFA in February, Kelly founded the Minority Pilot Advancement Foundation, which aims to bring these percentages up. He says that many of the young people he interacts with don’t initially see themselves as pilots. “The reality is that I was exposed and realized that this was something I could do, whereas most minorities and most women really don’t know that that’s a possibility ... We’re going into schools and talking to kids, junior high to high school. I went to (Alain LeRoy) Locke High School, which is right under the flight path for LAX. And in talking to these kids who watch these planes fly over their head every day, when I told them that this was something that they could actually do, you could see some kids (with) tears in their eyes going, ‘You know, I’d always wanted to do that, I just didn’t think I could.’”

Deciding you want to be a pilot is just the first hurdle. The next one is getting through the costly multiyear experience that is modern flight training.

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“(A pilot’s education will cost) around $100,000 to $125,000, depending on where you go,” Kelly says. “The typical way to go is that you become a private pilot, then you get your multi-engine, commercial, instrument ratings, and then you’ve now become a CFI (certified flight instructor) — that’s the way most pilots would do it today.”

But reaching first officer at an airline, even when flying daily as a flight instructor, takes time, Bubb says. “Just because (pilots) come out of ground school doesn’t mean they’re really ready to go to fly a (Boeing) 767. They are trained to safely fly the plane, but it takes a few years for those pilots to really become seasoned.” That seasoning, for all commercial airline pilots, includes 1,500 flight hours, a requirement instituted by Congress following 2009’s deadly Colgan Air crash.

The result is a pipeline of well-trained pilots, but an hour-accrual process that takes years to achieve.

BEYOND RETIREMENTS AND early-career challenges, keeping pilots in the industry — and at smaller, regional airlines — is another stumbling block to ensuring there are adequate pilots in cockpits. Union leaders are adamant that quality contracts are the key to retention.

“Those airlines which have chosen to ratify agreements with their pilot groups are having far less difficulty finding and hiring qualified pilots,” says Captain Kurt Hanson, an Allegiant Air pilot and Teamsters Local 2118 executive board member. Hanson and his union colleagues were responsible for the “Allegiant Pilot Contract Now” skywriting above the Strip during Super Bowl weekend. He says the union is about 60 percent finished with negotiations, which include retirement stipulations and other benefits.

Within the agreements Local 2118 is working toward, the terms as they relate to compensation are especially important. “In order to get the best and most qualified pilots, and to attract individuals that will remain at the airline for their entire career, what we need to do is to fairly compensate pilots,” Hanson says. “Allegiant pilots are approximately 50 percent behind the industry when it comes to compensation. And we’re struggling for parity with our peers. One of the things we like to say is that we work for an ultra-low-cost carrier, but we simply aren’t interested in being ultra-low-cost pilots ...
Our previous contract was signed in 2016 — the term of that contract was five years. And so, for many of our pilots, they haven’t seen a pay raise at all in more than three years.”

This could diminish Allegiant’s attractiveness to prospective pilots. The airline did not respond to Desert Companion’s interview request, but it wrote in its 2022 Annual Report that “the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement with our pilots’ union (now in negotiation) could also contribute to attrition and serve as an impediment to our being able to hire and maintain sufficient numbers of pilots.”

THE SOLUTIONS TO all three causes of the pilot shortage are clear, particularly to those in the industry: prolonging the time that pilots are allowed to fly by raising the mandatory retirement age to 67 (which Congress failed to pass last year), investing in the establishment of affordable local flight schools, and making sure commercial pilots are fairly contracted with the airlines they’re employed by. The good news is that many of these efforts are already in motion, both in the Las Vegas Valley and around the country.

Until they bear fruit, observers of the aviation industry, such as UNLV’s Bubb, say addressing the pilot shortage will be a foundational step toward Las Vegas’ tourism industry growth.

“(The shortage) has a significant bearing on Las Vegas, particularly because a little over 50 percent of all the people who come to Las Vegas come here by plane. And especially if we have future events like Formula One and the Super Bowl — where they’re trying to really make Las Vegas into a sports and entertainment center — (and) with all the concerts that we have, air travel is going to remain in very high demand, and we need to be ready for it ... I think we’ll get there, but it’s just going to take time.”