Pilot shortage is affecting how much you pay and how often you can fly

    Roanoke/Blacksburg Regional Airport

    At the Roanoke-Blacksburg Airport, passengers say there is a demand for more flights.

    “I'd love to see more always, Roanoke is a nice place and it would be nice to be able to go more places,” flyer Jim Haines said.

    But the problem is there aren't always enough pilots to meet the demand.

    “We see the evidence of the pilot shortage really on the commuter side,” Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional airport Director of Marketing, Brad Boettcher said.

    Boettcher is talking about commuter flights or smaller planes that take passengers to larger airports. He explained pilots want to go to bigger airports because the pay is better, leaving smaller airports like Roanoke and Lynchburg with a shortage.

    “We have seen our carriers cancel flights because of lack of crew,” Boettcher said. “We worked with that carrier quite closely.”

    The director of Lynchburg Regional Airport says at points they have had to cancel flights as well for this reason.

    “Oh sure, absolutely, particularly when it came to the transition of the turbo aircraft,” The director of the Lynchburg Regional Airport, Mark Courtney, said.

    But how did we get to this point?

    “It was transitioned from a time when after September 11th and the financial crisis in 2008 that the airlines underwent a lot of consolidation,” Courtney said

    Then, there was a 2009 crash in Buffalo, The FAA says because of a pilot error 50 people died in plane crash that hit a house. This led to big changes. After 2009 the federal aviation administration increased the number of hours needed to obtain a pilot license. Instead of 250 hours, the FAA now requires 1000-1500 hours.

    “That made the cost to get your certificate significantly more expensive,” Boettcher said.

    There’s another factor contributing to the pilot shortage: baby boomers retiring.

    “Within the next 7 years 40 percent of their captains are going to retire, so that is a huge gap that they are going to need to fill,” Boettcher said.

    So what does this mean for passengers?

    “It could mean that fares are a little bit higher because the cost of operating the aircraft goes up,” Boettcher said. “So fewer choices and it could potentially be more expensive.”

    On the flip side, students graduating from aviation schools can get paid a lot more than they used to.

    “Right now it's going to be between $60,000-70,000,” Averett University Flight School chief instructor, Travis Williams said. “Three-four-five years ago it was less than $20,000 in some cases.”

    Williams is talking about the total salary pilots can make their first year.

    It's part of the reason sophomore Shylah Wester says she got into the program.

    “As I did more research into it, I saw the boom of how many pilots they need and the pay is going up, Wester said. “So it's a win, win situation.”

    American Airlines confirmed to ABC 13 the average first year salaries for their pilots are usually $60,000. But it can significantly drop the second year.

    Boechtter said in an email if the pilot doesn't upgrade to captain or get a retention bonus the second year their pay can be as much as $20,000 dollars less the second year compared to their first.

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