FARGO - The airline industry has been sounding the alarm for years about the nationwide shortage of pilots. It's a growing problem fueled by a mix of factors, including federal aviation rule changes, mandatory retirements and economic reasons.
Shawn Dobberstein, executive director of the Municipal Airport Authority at Fargo's Hector International Airport, says the shortage is approaching a crisis level.
The industry could be short 16,000 to 20,000 pilots over the next three to five years, he said, with airports in rural areas in the crosshairs for losing service. "Small communities around the country, if they aren't, should have been put on notice some time ago," Dobberstein said.
Larger communities are feeling the effects as well.
Dobberstein is concerned about Fargo's airport losing flights on short notice due to a lack of pilots. He said the shortage is preventing Fargo from getting additional flights to hubs in Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas and Denver.
It's also standing in the way of nonstop service to Seattle, daily service to Atlanta and the return of service to Salt Lake City, he said.
Trans States Airlines flies on behalf of United Airlines as United Express in and out of Fargo, Bismarck, Dickinson and Williston.
Chief Operating Officer Fred Oxley said he'd like to hire at least 100 more pilots at Trans States.
He has 10 idle aircraft sitting on the ground, getting no production while the expense to maintain them adds up.
"It's not going to get better, it's going to get worse," Oxley said.
New rules and retirements
Jim Higgins, chair of the University of North Dakota Department of Aviation in Grand Forks, studies industry trends and helps put out a "Pilot Supply Forecast" on request.
In 2009, the U.S. Air Force asked the department to look at the future pilot supply.
When the data was first analyzed, Higgins said, they thought they'd made a mistake because every model predicted a cataclysmic pilot shortage sometime in the future.
"It was met with pretty widespread skepticism, especially because we were in the throes of a pretty bad recession," he said, adding that many pilots were on furlough at the time.
Then in 2013, a new Federal Aviation Administration rule took effect, creating a much longer timeline for pilots to get certified.
It was the result of a deadly accident four years prior, when a regional aircraft stalled and crashed on its approach to Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people.
The new rule required co-pilots of passenger aircraft to receive more training - 1,500 hours worth of flying time rather than the previous 250 hours.
Another big factor in the dwindling ranks is the aging of the pilot population.
In the U.S., pilots must retire at age 65, and many are at or near that age, Higgins said.
As they retire, major airlines will continue pulling talent from regional airlines, leaving those carriers to scramble to find qualified people to fly their planes.
"They will basically take up all of the regional pilots that are flying today, so there's this huge gap," Dobberstein said.
Freshmen courted for pilot jobs
UND's Aviation Department hopes its graduating students will help fill that gap.
Chief flight instructor Jeremy Roesler said he has about 900 students on the flight schedule and 170 flight instructors on staff.
The school's on pace for record freshmen enrollment in commercial aviation, with 693 students admitted for this fall, compared with 511 students in 2017 and 388 students in 2016.
Those students will be courted by airline representatives, just as first-year students are now.
"The amount of facetime the airlines are coming here to town and other schools is way up," Roesler said.
Most regional airlines are even giving conditional job offers to pilots before they reach their required number of flying hours, he said, in order to secure them early.
Another favorable development for pilots is better pay.
Higgins said aviation graduates can expect entry-level wages from $70,000 to $80,000, up dramatically from $25,000 to $30,000 just three years ago.
Third-year UND student Josh Sanchez hopes to become a corporate pilot, then earn a PhD in aerospace engineering so he can design and test future aircraft.
He said the schooling is tough, but with a lack of pilots, the timing is good to enter aviation.
"The end goal is flying airplanes, so in the end, it's all about that," Sanchez said.