May 5, 2022 - News

Pilot shortage on Texas' horizon

Illustration of a pilot wings pin with a sad face in the middle
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As airlines predict their most profitable summer ever — and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport continues to break passenger records — a massive pilot shortage could mean sky-high prices and more flight cancellations for customers.

Why it matters: The U.S. is forecast to lose about half its pilots to retirement in the next 15 years, according to ABC News. Fort Worth-based American Airlines expects more than one-third of its 15,000 pilots to retire in the next seven years.

  • Fewer pilots will mean fewer flights, which will likely lead to fare spikes.

What's happening: Thousands of pilots chose early retirement at the beginning of the pandemic. The FAA also requires commercial pilots to retire at age 65, and major airlines are also struggling with a shortfall of flight instructors.

Between the lines: Pilots are also tired. The pilots union for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines recently told company executives that: "Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines' number-one safety threat."

Context: Pilots unions for both American and Southwest airlines are negotiating new contracts.

What they're saying: ​American Airlines 737 captain and union spokesperson Dennis Tajer tells Axios that Austin's high-growth airport could feel the scorch of pilot burnout.

  • "Austin is coveted by American because their growth model looks at connective traffic" — and many American routes out of Austin-Bergstrom connect through hubs in Dallas or Charlotte, North Carolina, Tajer says.
  • "Austin now is in a hypergrowth mode so all of these lagging performance issues are likely to show strongly in an area like Austin," he continued.
  • "We're trying to prevent an operation meltdown," Tajer says.

The other side: "I'm confident that the quality of life and the compensation for pilots is going to attract people to the industry," American Airlines CEO Robert Isom, who took charge at the end of March, said on a recent earnings call.

  • There appear to be no downstream issues at the Austin airport: As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 80 aviation jobs were listed on Indeed.
  • "As far as the airport's daily operations — independent of the airlines' — we aren't really seeing an impact," ABIA spokesperson Sam Haynes tells Axios.

By the numbers: American has about 100 daily departures out of Austin, and Southwest has about 110.

The bottom line: If you're thinking about becoming a pilot, you have a pretty good chance of getting a job.

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