Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. airlines are struggling to find pilots.

The pandemic slowed down training of new pilots, and an aging pilot workforce opted for early retirements amid the reduced travel. Now there is talk of raising the federally mandated retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67 or reducing the limitations on pilots’ permitted flight hours, NBC News reported Sunday.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in April, estimating about 150 planes might be grounded amid the shortage.

The handing out of early retirement packages amid the COVID-19 travel reduction has exacerbated the emerging crisis.

“I feel like I walked away at the pinnacle,” a former captain told NBC News.

The hiring of new pilots might reach 12,000 this year, more than doubling the previous annual record, according to the report.

“We never fathomed attrition levels like this,” Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein told NBC News. “If we don’t fly our airplanes, we lose money. You saw our quarterly numbers.

“We could use 200 pilots right now.”

Among the alternatives is flying in pilots from places like Australia under special work visas or expanding the number of hours existing pilots can fly.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is reportedly weighing legislation to raise the mandated retirement age two years to keep the existing older pilots in place to handle the demand amid shortages.

Another 13% of U.S. airline pilots are ready to reach retirement age in the next five years, according to the Regional Airline Association.

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