APPLETON (WLUK) -- Air travel is soaring to new heights. 2017 set new records for passengers. As they fill up planes, airports are working to add more flights and the airlines more destinations. The problem is the industry is running out of pilots to fly the planes.
"I’d say on a scale of 1 to 10, we’re looking somewhere at a 7 as far as where we’re at with the pilot shortage in the industry right now in our country," said Bob Frisch, Chief Operating Officer for Air Wisconsin—a regional carrier for United Airlines Lines.
Under the United Express brand, Air Wisconsin employs some 600 pilots servicing 65 regional airports around the country including Appleton International Airport and Austin Straubel in Green Bay.
Frisch needs more pilots.
"We’re looking to hire north of 250 pilots over the next 12 months, and that will continue over the foreseeable future," said Frisch.
The pilot shortage is being felt by every airline. The Federal Aviation Administration reports there were 609,000 pilots last year in the United States. That number is down 30 percent from 30 years ago (827,000 pilots), while the number of passengers has grown.
The shortage has been created from many factors.
"Cost of training is $100-thousand to $200-thousand, in order to have a career," said Frisch. "We went a number of years where we did not train enough pilots, and that started after 9-11."
Fox Valley Technical College is working to fill the need by training new pilots. Jared Huss heads up the school’s Aeronautics program. A former airline pilot himself, he is aware of the demand.
"We’ve done some great things here in the recent years to up our capacity for those training needs," said Huss.
The cost of educating new pilots is being made more affordable at Fox Valley Tech, too. The school’s 21-month course runs $70,000.
"It’s not cheap, but the reward is great," explained Huss. "So after 21 months they not only have all the certificates ratings they need to fly professionally but also teach those same skill sets to the next generation of pilots."
Students spend another two years getting required hours in the cockpit by being flight instructors. The school has even partnered with Air Wisconsin, and two other regional carriers, to funnel their future pilots right into airline jobs. And the growing demand has new pilots able to earn close to six-figures with salary and bonuses being offered by the airlines in need of pilots.
The Fox Valley Tech program typically had 25 pilots in training. This year the number is at 44. And next fall Huss is planning for up to 60 total pilots in the program.
"The beautiful thing is we’re not going to over saturate the job market. There are so many jobs out there and so much need out there that there’s jobs for all of our graduates out there," said Huss.
Through the partnership with Air Wisconsin, students are hired on before they graduate.
"Yup this was the dream" said Brendon Whitford, a FVTC aeronautics student pilot.
Whitford is still working on getting his required hours of flying to earn his commercial airline pilot’s license, but he’s already working for Air Wisconsin under the Fox Valley Tech partnership.
"We’re starting to flight instruct and then you get to learn about Air Wisconsin, about the airplane, a lot about their company and about their culture and everything," said Whitford.
While Whitford’s future is set with a pilot job waiting, the ongoing shortage hasn’t been friendly to passengers, who are the ones that face delays or canceled flights.
"You feel bad for anyone travelling. We want to keep working as well we don’t like sitting around airports any longer than anybody else does," said Judd Brinkman, a pilot for Air Wisconsin out of Appleton.
In recent years regional airlines, like Air Wisconsin, have switched to larger planes to be able to transport more passengers. But many of those larger planes are already full.
"We feel like the pilot shortage has held us back from adding more flights and more destinations to our already great service that we’ve had here," explained Appleton International Airport director Abe Weber.
Weber says his office has been active in trying to address the problem, by holding career fairs, and hosting an aviation explorers program.
"It helps students from 8th grade up to high school have an interest in the aviation world," said Weber. "It's just getting out there to spread the word and letting them know there's a number of things they can do and really try to attract them to aviation."
Some community airports around the country haven’t faired as well. Over the past five years, the Regional Airline Association reports 32 airports lost all commercial airline service. While nearly 250 airports experienced reduced air service by 10 percent of more—including three airports in Wisconsin, Lacrosse Regional, Rhinelander/Oneida County and Austin Straubel in Green Bay..
Not impacted as much by the pilot shortage, are the big city airports and the major carriers, like American, Delta, United and Southwest. That’s because when they lose pilots, they seek out trained pilots working for regional airlines, like Air Wisconsin, putting the strain of cultivating new pilots on those regional carriers.
"That’s true. It is. And that’s where we have to step up and establish those relationships with the different flight schools and make sure we have a good pathway and good supply of pilots for our operation," said Frisch.
In addition to pilots, Frisch points out they are also facing shortages of flight attendants and airline mechanics.
The Aeronautics Department at Fox Valley Technical College also offers other programs in aviation including Aircraft Electronics and Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics.