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Pilot shortage, plane issues affect Las Vegas and beyond

Southwest Airlines pilots perform a pre-check in a 737 aircraft before a flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Washington.
Mike Stewart
Southwest Airlines pilots perform a pre-check in a 737 aircraft before a flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Washington.

If you’ve flown lately, you might have said a prayer or two before takeoff, because air travel-related news hasn’t been good in recent months.

There have been problems with airplane maintenance — a door flew open on an airliner in early January and tore the shirt off a boy sitting by the door. Those have been coupled with other design issues on one of the most popular planes, the Boeing 737 Max.

Meanwhile, just about everyone who flies now expects delays or cancellations. Passengers are nickel-and-dimed for amenities, and there’s always some scary story of unruly passengers.

Add to that a report from the New York Times last fall, which reported 46 close calls with commercial flights in July alone. And runway incursions, which are instances of incorrect spacing between aircraft on a runway, are 25% higher than a decade ago.

Put it all together, and the aviation industry has had a challenging start to 2024.

But there’s another problem taking flight: an impending pilot shortage. According to a statement Allegiant Air made to the Review-Journal last year, the industry is short about 17,000 pilots. The carrier projected that number would double by 2032.

“Pre-pandemic, we already had a shortage of pilots,” said Ron Kelly, the CEO of the Las Vegas Flight Academy. He’s also the founder of the Minority Pilot Advancement Foundation. “The reality is that the airlines, in trying to save money, got a lot of their pilots to take early retirement. So then we came back after the pandemic and people started flying again. The shortage that already existed just got multiplied.”

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 spring and summer travel.

“Today, I believe we are somewhere like 10 percent above pre-pandemic flight levels,” said Kelly. “So a lot of people are traveling, a lot of people are getting out there. And the reality is, all of those problems that you brought up regarding flights being cancelled, delayed, or a combination of bad weather — but really not enough crews and crews timing out on the tarmac — are causing more problems out there.”

Beyond the pandemic pushing older pilots out of the field, there’s also fewer new ones making their way through the ranks. Part of that is due to the cost to train a pilot.

“[A pilot’s education will cost] around $100,000 to $125,000, depending on where you go,” Kelly said. “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 … Once they become a CFI, they're going to start getting paid to train other pilots. And, as you know, the best way to learn something is to teach it. So, they'll spend another probably year and a half, maybe even as much as two years,” building up to the 1,500 hour flight-time minimum that the FAA set after 2009's deadly Colgan Air disaster.

Some solutions that are being considered are a combination of increasing the number of local flight schools, reducing education requirements and raising the retirement age from 65. So far, Congress has said “no” to increasing the retirement age to 67.

But another key to alleviating the shortage, says Allegiant Air pilot and Teamsters Local 2118 executive board member Capt. Kurt Hanson, is increasing wages.

“Allegiant pilots are approximately 50 percent behind the industry when it comes to compensation,” Hanson said. “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. So, it's been a struggle over the years. 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 and more than three years.”

Hanson and his fellow pilots are currently in contract negotiations with Allegiant Air. He estimates they are about 60 percent through the negotiation process.

Whatever the solution, aviation historians like Dan Bubb, a former airline pilot himself and a current associate professor and coordinator of Academic Affairs at UNLV’s Honor College, believe addressing the pilot shortage will be a foundational step in Las Vegas’ tourism future.

“[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 — 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.”

Guests: Ron Kelly, CEO of the Las Vegas Flight Academy and founder of the Minority Pilot Advancement Foundation; Dan Bubb, former airline pilot and current associate professor in residence, UNLV; Kurt Hanson, Captain with Allegiant Air and executive board member for Allegiant Air Pilots Local 2118

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