Industry changes

The combination of fewer pilots and fewer regional jets in the airline industry could have a significant impact on future air service in North Dakota, Minot’s airport director said Tuesday.

Andrew Solsvig presented information from a July forum in Minneapolis to the Minot City Council’s airport committee that showed a looming pilot shortage.

“Fewer people are learning to fly, and those who do are less willing to pursue an airline career,” Solsvig said. “We are starting to see the early effects. It’s something that’s coming in the near future.”

As regulations limiting pilot flight hours ground some crews, replacements aren’t always readily available, especially in smaller markets. A few flight cancellations have occurred in Minot in the past six months due to lack of crews to fly the planes, Solsvig said.

In addition, airlines plan to phase out smaller, regional jets in response to rising maintenance costs for the aging fleet. Replacing two 50-seat regional jets with a 100-seat jet reduces the pilot need but also reduces the frequency of service to smaller airports, Solsvig said. However, there’s no guarantee that a regional jet will be replaced. About 70 percent of U.S. airports are dependent on regional carriers, including Minot.

Minot does have some regular carrier service, and Solsvig said the local market should be able to sustain continued service with larger aircraft, probably at a reduced flight frequency.

His conversations with Minot’s major carriers, United and Delta, indicate that those airlines don’t plan to phase out the regional jets in this area anytime soon.

“They will keep them in this area of North Dakota for as long as they can,” he said.

Another regulation affecting commercial airline service is a requirement that newly hired pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flying time, up from 250 hours. The change came in response to a commercial airline crash involving a less experienced pilot and co-pilot.

The change comes at a time when pilot hiring at major airlines is expected to more than double due to both service growth and the need to replace retirees.

In the next 10 years, airlines will see large attrition as pilots reach retirement age, said Ed Burkhardt, senior flight instructor at the Minot Aero Center. Replacements will come from the smaller regional airlines, which then will draw from the commuter or cargo airlines and so forth, down the line.

“It’s a big vacuum, going up the chain,” he said.

Minot flight instructor Blythe Nakasone said the number of flight instructor jobs becoming available signals that the vacuum effect of the major airlines may already have begun. Existing flight instructors or cargo pilots are being sucked up as they reach the experience requirement for airlines.

Not all pilots want to fill the cockpits for major airlines, though. Some prefer flying the corporate or charter jets that provide a routine and more stable lifestyle while paying a good wage.

The job outlook would be attractive to young people looking for a career but for the salaries. Aviation is costly to get into and starting wages for pilots interested in commercial airlines doesn’t always even hit $30,000 a year. There’s potential to garner significant salaries, but it takes time, Burkhardt said.

Also, moving up the pipeline requires experience.

Nakasone and Derek Peterson, both graduates of the University of North Dakota aeronautics program, became flight instructors in Minot as a way to subsidize their quest for more flying hours, which will enable them to move into other aviation pursuits. They aren’t quite sure where their pursuits will take them.

Peterson said he’s not interested in an airline career. He prefers working locally so he can stay involved with the family farm. Nakasone, a native of Hawaii, is keeping her options open but would like a flying career that would take her closer to her home state.

Allen Hirzel, a native of Michigan state and formerly with the Air Force, is working toward a master’s degree that will steer him toward management rather than an airline career. Meanwhile, he is taking flying lessons in Minot as a step toward becoming a flight instructor.

Having held a private pilot’s license since 1999, Hirzel said just getting the minimum 40 hours of flying time to become licensed can cost $6,000. A commercial license to become an instructor requires 250 flying hours. A person can invest a considerable amount in education and then have to start at the bottom of the pay scale.

“I think that’s what discourages a lot of people,” Hirzel said.

Interest in aviation at UND has been up and down but currently seems to be high, Peterson said. The wealth created by North Dakota’s oil boom is bankrolling education for people who otherwise might not have been able to afford to learn to fly, he said.

Nakasone agreed that there’s no shortage of pilots in training at UND. However, as a UND student contacting aviation graduates for a fund-raising program, she found half of graduates at that time had left aviation. The downturn in the industry following the 2001 terrorist attacks may have contributed to the poor pilot retention, she said.

Pilot career prospects after 2001 are believed to have contributed on a national level to a decline in pilot supply today.

Solsvig provided the airport committee with national information showing academic interest remains stable or growing for management, unmanned systems and air traffic control while dropping for flight majors.

Suggested solutions that came out of the Minneapolis forum included investing in pilot training, lobbying Congress to change pilot requirements, expanding flight academies and creating stronger carrier affiliations with flight schools.