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Congressional bid to raise pilot retirement age would only 'help somewhat,’ Sioux Falls airport director says

Rep. Dusty Johnson estimated that by 2023, the airline industry would be experiencing a shortage of roughly 12,000 pilots, to be exacerbated by another 14,000 soon to be forced to retire at age 65 over the next five years.

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A sign advertises flight training courses at the Mitchell Municipal Airport as the nation grapples with a shortage of commercial pilots.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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SIOUX FALLS — A federal bill aimed to address a commercial airline pilot shortage plaguing the United States’ travel industry is a step in the right direction, but won’t be a catch-all solution, according to an airport official in Sioux Falls.

Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson this week announced their support for the “Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act,” a bill introduced to the United States Senate that would raise the mandatory retirement age of commercial airline pilots from 65 to 67.

Beyond adding two years of eligibility for commercial pilots’ to fly, the act, formally introduced by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., aims to require pilots over 65 continue using training and qualification programs approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and requires semiannual first-class medical certifications. It does not seek to change or amend any other qualification for commercial airline pilots.

The bill comes as the commercial airline industry is suffering a crippling shortage of pilots, subjecting travelers across the nation to delays, cancellations and overall disruptions.

Citing studies and industry analysts, Johnson said that the pilot shortage in North America is expected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023. In addition, nearly 14,000 qualified U.S. pilots will be forced to retire over the next five years due to the federal mandatory pilot retirement age.

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By increasing the retirement age, aviation officials could spare 5,000 forced retirements over the next two years, Thune said, giving more time for young aviators to complete their training.

“Airline staffing challenges continue to result in cancellations and delays across the aviation system,” Thune said. “Providing an opportunity for highly qualified, experienced pilots to continue flying past age 65 is a sensible way to alleviate these challenges while training programs recover from the effects of the pandemic.”

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A water tower featuring an orange and white checkered pattern stands above the Mitchell Municipal Airport.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Why is there a pilot shortage?

According to Johnson, the United States hasn’t yet seen the peak of impacts that are a result of the shortage.

“We haven’t even begun to see the worst of the pilot shortage. COVID-19 forced a lot of early retirements, and pilot recruitment is tough,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard horror stories of South Dakotans missing family weddings due to canceled flights — Americans need reliable travel options. Raising the mandatory retirement age by two years is a safe and effective way to mitigate this shortage.”

Though Sioux Falls’ Joe Foss Field sees less air traffic than other popular alternatives for South Dakotans looking to catch a flight — such as Eppley Airfield in Omaha or the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — it doesn’t mean the smaller regional hub is immune to the effects.

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Dan Letellier

According to Dan Letellier, executive director of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport (FSD), the main factor of the present-day shortage can be traced back to 2013, when the FAA updated their training requirements for commercial pilots.

“The biggest driver [of today’s shortage] was back in 2013, the FAA increased the minimum flight hours requirement to be a commercial pilot,” Letellier said. “It’s true still that, in most of the developed countries in the world, the captain is still required to have 1,500-plus flight hours, but a first officer used to be able to get hired and brought in at 250 hours and kinda learn and grow with the job. Back in 2013, the FAA changed that to 1,500 hours, so that’s a huge difference.”

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Letellier explained that prospective pilots can get their license at a variety of institutions, but racking up flight hours can be an expensive and time consuming process.

“You can get your pilot's license anywhere, but you have to accumulate 1,500 to even apply. That’s really expensive. How do you get those hours?” Letellier asked, rhetorically. “It takes a significant amount of time. A four-year school can train you to be a pilot, and you can accumulate some of those hours by being a flight instructor, but you're going to have a tuition bill of $120,000 to $150,000.”

Though major airlines have doubled or even tripled their salaries in recent years, according to Letellier, the cost could be a turn-off to some interested in flying.

To combat this, some organizations, including the Regional Airline Association, have discussed lobbying for the FAA to allow what’s described as a “restricted license.” Similar to a young South Dakotan’s license to drive a vehicle during certain hours of the day, a commercial pilot could begin flying with only 750 flight hours on the condition they continue working toward their 1,500 flight hours through other training and flight simulations.

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South Dakota only has five airports with commercial service, in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, Pierre and Watertown.
Map data courtesy of Google 2022

Letellier indicated he’s uncertain how much interest federal officials or lawmakers have in researching that suggestion, adding he would like to see more loan and scholarship options available to prospective pilots.

Beyond the multiple challenges associated with new pilot training, Letellier added that a lack of reserve pilot and flight crews only accelerates the snowball effect of a delay or cancellation.

“You may have seen on Memorial Day or spring break how thunderstorms can impact Florida, for example, and a lot of flights in Florida have to cancel,” Letellier said. “That creates a domino effect through the industry because pilots aren't where they’re supposed to be.”

Without as many flight crews on standby at a given airport, one delay or cancellation could result in multiple delays or cancellations at a flight crew’s destination, as they won’t make it in time for their next flight.

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“You start throwing in cancellations and pilots not being in cities when they’re supposed to be … and airlines just have to start canceling. That could start in Florida but will ripple through the country in a couple days time,” Letellier said. “A pilot makes up a flight schedule. If that flight is delayed, that flight crew may be [delaying] three different flights [at their destination]. In the past, you’d have reserves. Well, those crews aren't there, they don't have the extra pilots sitting around anymore.”

Finally, Letellier noted that struggles to recruit pilots to the U.S. Air Force and Navy has cut off a valuable pipeline, as many pilots who leave the service tend to transition toward commercial airlines.

“When they're struggling to get someone to join the military to become a pilot, they cant afford to have those trained pilots leave after a few years, so they’re offering huge incentives to stay on,” Letellier said. “You’re not seeing that migration from the military to commercial service, then, so you’re losing a valuable pipeline.”

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., climbs off a chartered plane in Buffalo on Aug. 17. (Marcus Traxler/Republic)
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., climbs off a chartered plane in Buffalo on Aug. 17, 2015.
Marcus Traxler / Mitchell Republic

Age-related legislation is ‘one component'

Though there are many causes contributing to the status quo, Letellier said he supports legislation to increase the mandatory retirement age, though it won’t help much.

“There’s just not that many pilots that will even fly that long. It would help somewhat, but really something needs to be addressed with the 1,500 flight hours [requirement],” Letellier said. “I think everything we can do to try to help with the supply of pilots, we have to look at. And age is certainly one component of it.”

One point of optimism for Letellier is increasing numbers of students declaring as aviation majors at South Dakota State University.

Though there’s no guarantee that those students will end up as commercial pilots — as the major encompasses more than strictly one avenue — Kendra Kattelman, director of SDSU’s School of Health and Consumer Sciences, said enrollment numbers for aviation students has increased more than 80% between 2017 and 2021.

Kattelmann said every student who graduates the program gets some kind of position in the aviation industry.

“All of our students are getting positions. Many are certified flight instructors for (the university) until they get their 1,000 hours,” Kattelmann said. “They’re finding positions all over. Sanford has a medical plane, some work for freight airlines, others work as charters or with regional outlets, and we have had some that have chosen to move on to major airlines like United and Delta.”

While hearing of increased interest in SDSU’s aviation program piqued Letellier’s interest, he cautiously warned it still might not be enough.

“It’s encouraging that there's interest there,” he said. “It’s just that throughout the whole industry, the number of pilots we need far outpaces what the industry has been able to produce.”

The mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots has been set at 65 since 2007, when Congress upped the age from 60 after a study found that age had an “insignificant impact” on performance in the cockpit.

Dunteman covers general and breaking news as well as crime in the Mitchell Republic's 17-county coverage area. He grew up in Harrisburg, and has lived in South Dakota for over 20 years. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 after earning his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at HDunteman@MitchellRepublic.com, or on Twitter @HRDunt.
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