Pilots, once in short supply, now losing jobs

Niraj Chokshi, The New York Times

Posted at Jul 07 2020 08:57 AM

A nearly deserted San Francisco International Airport, May 22, 2020. Before the pandemic, airlines worried about not being able to replace retiring baby boomer pilots, but now eager recruits expect to bear the brunt of layoffs. Jim Wilson, The New York Times

Joshua Weinstein always wanted to be an airline pilot, but the industry was in crisis when he started college in 2002, so he became a middle school teacher instead.

He loved that job, but after a decade of flying in his free time at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, Weinstein began hearing more about a looming pilot shortage and left the classroom in 2018 to pursue his dream. It worked: In January, he started training to fly for ExpressJet, which operates regional flights for United Airlines. But the coronavirus pandemic, which devastated the airline business, could thin the ranks of pilots by the thousands and has already put the nascent careers of people like Weinstein on hold.

“The worst part right now is that the only thing we know is that nobody knows anything,” he said. “There’s uncertainty. We just don’t know what happens next.”

For years, flight schools, airlines and experts encouraged people like Weinstein to become pilots. They promised young recruits a job that was lucrative and secure because thousands of pilots in their late 50s and early 60s would retire in the coming years and demand for travel would continue growing. The profession is still stacked with older aviators, but airlines are expected to make deep cuts in the coming months, and the pilots most at risk are those who are just starting out.

While air travel has recovered somewhat, it is still only about one-fourth of what it was last year, according to airport security data. Most experts say the recovery will be slow and uneven because of a patchwork of travel bans and the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. The recent surge in coronavirus infections has already forced some governors to delay reopening their state economies and to shut down bars and other businesses. If cases continue to increase, as some public health experts fear, air travel could become a lot less appealing. 

To prepare for that uncertain future, the largest airlines in the US are stockpiling billions of dollars in cash. If ticket sales do not recover soon, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United have said they could resort to job cuts as soon as Oct. 1, the first day when airlines are free to eliminate jobs and reduce hours under a stimulus law that Congress approved in March.

Airlines could lay off, furlough or reduce the hours of tens of thousands of pilots, cuts that would disproportionately fall on those who have less union seniority and training. Major airlines have already stopped hiring pilots after posting hundreds of openings in the first quarter of the year, according to Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a consulting firm.

Several companies are offering buyout packages to avoid deeper cuts later. Southwest has acknowledged in discussions with its pilots union that the airline is likely overstaffed by more than 1,000 pilots. The company is offering several years of partial pay and benefits to those who agree to leave the company temporarily or permanently. Delta warned last week that it could furlough nearly 2,600 pilots and is offering early-retirement packages.

Some pilots said the turmoil was nerve-racking, but those who have been in the profession for a while have come to expect it.

“You kind of know going in that aviation has high highs and low lows,” said Lisa Archibald, 41, a Delta pilot and volunteer with the airline’s pilot union, the Delta Master Executive Council. “You do it because you love what you do.”

Like Weinstein, Archibald arrived at the job by way of a detour. After graduating from Purdue University’s School of Aviation and Transportation Technology, she was hired to fly at American Eagle, which American Airlines owns. But the job started days before the 2001 terrorist attacks, and she was furloughed after just a few weeks.

About a year later, Archibald found a job piloting corporate jets, which she did for 15 years. She joined Delta in May 2017.

Unsurprisingly, pilots are passionate about the profession. That is why they spend years in grueling training programs, trying to rack up the minimum flight hours and credentials needed to become airline pilots, at a cost of up to $100,000, not including the price of a college degree.

Weinstein, 36, estimates that he easily spent between $50,000 and $70,000 on flight training, offset by what he earned working at the flight school and teaching middle school in New Jersey over a decade. At ExpressJet, first-year pilots earn a minimum $36,000 a year.
Whatever the outcome, Weinstein said, all that effort has been worth it.

“I have something to show for it because I did make it to the airlines and I did get hired and I did achieve that dream,” he said. “And so part of me says not to regret a single moment of it, because I put my mind to something and I did it.”


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