For pilots, a good time for job hunting Retirements, growth of airlines contribute to hiring spree

August 23, 1998|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

For aspiring airline pilots, it's a great time to be looking for a job.

U.S. carriers are scrambling to hire the more than 10,000 additional pilots they need each year to fly their airplanes. They have new planes arriving as pilots hired during the 1960s and 1970s are reaching mandatory retirement age.

AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in pilot career consulting, estimates that the airlines will hire at least 14,000 pilots in 1998. This year will be the third in a row that pilot hirings set a record.

"Certainly, we are in a record period for pilot hirings," said Kit Darby, president of AIR Inc. "We're not just breaking the records. We're smashing them."

The airlines have come roaring back from an early 1990s industry slump during which they grounded airplanes, canceled or delayed aircraft purchases and shrank operations. A number of major carriers furloughed some pilots, and most stopped hiring pilots.

After a high of 10,111 hires in 1989 at the end of the 1980s boom, the carriers averaged just more than 5,000 new pilots a year from 1990 to 1993. Few of those went to the major airlines, and that number doesn't count the thousands of pilot jobs lost through airline failures and furloughs.

Pilot hiring began heading upward in 1994 and has exceeded 10,000 annually since 1996.

American Airlines Inc., which has the largest U.S. jet fleet, hired no pilots for nearly five years beginning in early 1993 and it had furloughed 610 pilots by the end of 1994.

After resuming hiring this year, it expects to hire 2,642 pilots through 2002, including more than 1,000 to replace retiring pilots. American, which employed 8,479 pilots at the end of 1997, expects to grow to more than 10,000 pilots by the end of 2002.

Other airlines are also busily hiring pilots. Delta Air Lines, which at one time had 546 pilots on furlough, resumed hiring nearly two years ago.

"At the present time, we have over 12,000 applicants that meet our minimum requirements in our database," Delta spokeswoman Jackie Pate said. "Our tough time is not getting enough qualified [applicants] but in selecting the best of the qualified."

Unlike other carriers, Southwest Airlines Co. never stopped growing and hiring pilots, even in the early 1990s. But with everyone beating the bushes for qualified candidates, Southwest has had to adjust.

For a number of years, Southwest set aside one or two days a year to accept applications from hopeful pilots. That was more than enough time to get all the applications it needed for an entire year.

With pilot hirings by other major airlines almost nil, Southwest was overwhelmed with applications. In a single day, the Dallas carrier would receive more than 1,000 applications for 200 pilot jobs.

Southwest now accepts applications every day.

"There are fewer pilots out there, and we want to encourage those who want to work at Southwest and who meet our requirements to put in their applications," said Paul Sterbenz, Southwest's vice president of flight operations.

US Airways not hiring

Of the 10 major airlines, only US Airways Inc. isn't hiring pilots. It still has 164 pilots on furlough.

Darby, the pilot career analyst, said several factors are behind the hiring boom. Strong economic growth helps, but that isn't the only reason airlines are adding so many pilots, he said.

For one, the thousands of pilots hired during the 1960s and 1970s are approaching age 60, the federal mandatory retirement age. Darby estimates that retirements will increase from about 1,400 in 1998 to about 2,300 in 2007.

With that many pilots retiring each year, airlines will keep hiring replacements just to avoid shrinking, Darby said.

"That would say that even in bad times, your retirements will shore hiring up," Darby said. "And in good times, it'll be incredible because you'll have both growth and retirements. And that's what we're seeing today. That's why it's so good today."

In addition, airlines are trying to become more productive. Alaska Airlines Inc., for example, flew its planes an average of 8.2 hours a day in 1993 but increased that 37 percent, to 11.2 hours, in 1997.

Fewer from military

The military is still a prime source for pilots, but airlines are drawing more pilots from civilian sources, Darby said.

Traditionally, 75 percent to 80 percent of new hires have been military pilots who retired or left the service early to go to the airlines. Now, about 45 percent of new pilots are from the military, he said.

But even though the proportion from the military is declining, those applicants are still highly sought by airlines, he said. The military pilots are considered well-screened and trained, and they have good experience.

Stephanie Skaggs, a Southwest Airlines team leader for hiring maintenance and flight operations employees, said cutbacks in the military are providing some applicants.

Most military pilots are realizing that they'll have to take desk jobs toward the end of their military career if they want to make it to 20 years, and that fact doesn't sit well with many aviators, Skaggs said. That prompts many to retire early.

"They want to fly," she said.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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