Amidst nationwide pilot shortage, air carriers in Alaska feeling the pinch

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The airline industry is in dire need of pilots – and Alaska is no exception. Just this spring, Alaska Airlines became the latest company blaming an ongoing pilot shortage for canceled and delayed flights. But finding new pilots remains a hurdle, and it’s not easy to get into the cockpit of a major airline. 

Take Connor St. Laurent as an example. He’s 23-years-old and from Anchorage. When we spoke in early May, he was just 25 flight hours shy of being able to test for his commercial pilot’s license. 

“Right now I’m just time building, so I’m just cruising around – you know, go to Talkeetna, grab a pizza, or just practicing maneuvers by myself,” he said.

Time spent in the air, though, is just a fraction of the work.

“But once you start pushing towards making sure you’re ready to do your check ride, I’ll probably study over 5 hours, 6 hours a day,” said St. Laurent. 

It’s taken St. Laurent about 3 years to get to this point. The Federal Aviation Administration requires 250 flight hours before prospective pilots can sit for their commercial check ride – and there’s an oral exam they need to pass too. Along with the time commitment, it’s expensive. 

St. Laurent flies out of Fly Around Alaska, a flight school based in Palmer, Alaska now. But he started at a flight program in Montana, which he said cost about $40,000 a year.

More commercial pilots now come from civilian backgrounds, like Connor St. Laurent, and are trying to fill the pilot void. (Photo courtesy: Connor St. Laurent)

Connor’s dad, Leon, learned to fly in the military and then spent most of his career flying for a major airline. That’s a path about two thirds of commercial pilots used to take. But the military has had its own problems recruiting pilots, and has upped its efforts to retain the ones it has. Most come from a civilian background now – like Connor – meaning they have to shell out the time and money on their own. And that’s causing a bottleneck.

“Yeah, just chipping away at the hours I feel like that’s kind of where everyone gets to,” said St. Laurent.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics points to nearly 150,000 vacant pilot positions that will need to be filled over the next decade. 

There isn’t clear data for Alaska, but airlines are noticing a pinch. United Airlines opened its own flight school to mint new pilots back in February, and in March, Alaska Airlines became the latest company to announce a scholarship program for applicants who agree to fly for the company once they graduate, or for its sister-carrier Horizon Air. The Seattle-based carrier did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Adam White heads the government and legislative affairs program for the Alaska Airmen’s Association, an advocacy group for pilots in Alaska. 

He says the industry has seen waves of pilot shortages before, and knew this current one was coming. The pandemic just sped up the process.

“Back in the late 80s, early 90s we had a big exodus from the Vietnam era pilots, and there was a little bit of a crunch at that point,” said White. “Now we’re getting to the mandatory retirement age for a lot of other commercial pilots that came on board about that timeframe.”

And there’s another problem – more than a thousand-hour experience gap from the time a pilot gets his or her commercial license til they can work for an airline. 

Many of those pilots start at smaller commercial carriers called Part 135 operators that haul mail or freight and don’t have the same hour requirements. In Alaska, those companies typically fly supplies between villages off the road system. White said pilots for those carriers used to stay with a company for two or three years before going to another job. 

That’s not the case anymore.

“Sometimes they’re staying 6 months now because they’ve been able to get enough experience that now they have an opportunity to talk to an airline and the airline will bring them on much sooner than what they would have two, three, five years ago,” said White.

White said some companies are even recruiting older, recreational pilots to fill flying jobs in the communities where they live to fill the void.

Smaller flight operators that run supplies between villages in Alaska are also feeling the pinch from the pilot shortage. (Photo: Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

The big challenge now, according to White, is getting the young and up-and-coming pilots to stay here – in Alaska. He says many regional flight operators in Alaska are starting to offer better employment benefits and higher pay to try and solve that problem.

And more organizations – like the Alaska Airmen’s Association – are handing out financial assistance for Alaskans to get into flight school. Some high schools in the state have also started offering flight classes.

Connor St. Laurent said he wants to fly for a major airline someday, but he’s not trying to leave Alaska anytime soon. He’s just focused on the step right in front of him.

“You’re over the hill at 250 hours and you get that commercial check ride done,” he said. “You can finally say, ‘hey, I could be getting paid right now to fly a plane.’ You can go make some money instead of spending all of it and get paid to fly instead of pay to fly.”

If the current economic outlook is any indication, his job prospects are good.

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