DALLAS - Major U.S. airlines are hiring pilots at a rate not seen since before 9/11, and that is encouraging more young people to consider a career in the cockpit.
Hiring is likely to remain brisk for years. Smaller airlines in the U.S. are struggling with a shortage that will continue as they lose pilots to the bigger carriers, which in turn will need to replace thousands of retiring pilots over the next few years.
Aircraft maker Boeing predicts that the U.S. will need 117,000 new pilots by 2036. Just a decade ago thousands of pilots were furloughed and some abandoned the profession.
The shortage has been felt most keenly at regional carriers where many pilots start their airline careers.
Last summer, Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air canceled more than 300 flights over two months for lack of pilots. Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy protection in 2016, citing a pilot shortage that forced it to ground flights.
Many regional carriers fly smaller planes for American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express. Signing bonuses and higher pay have helped them hire more than 17,000 pilots in the past four years, but that only replaced those who moved up to the major carriers, according to the Regional Airline Association.
Demand at the major airlines is expected to grow as thousands of pilots at American, Delta, United and Southwest hit the U.S. mandatory pilot-retirement age of 65 in the next several years.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker believes the industry will cope.
"Economics is going to take care of this, and I think that's what is happening now," Parker says. "The [flight] schools are starting to fill up with people who realize, 'If I can get myself to 1,500 hours [the minimum flight hours needed to get an airline-pilot license], I can be assured of a career as a pilot.' That's not something people could convince themselves of from 9/11 on until now."
Pilot hiring nosedived after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that led to a decline in travel, and again during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. Major U.S. airlines hired only 30 pilots in 2009, according to Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career-counseling business for pilots.
The job market didn't pick up significantly until around 2014. Last year 10 of the largest U.S. passenger and cargo airlines hired 4,988 pilots, the most since 2000 when they hired 5,105.
"It's the best sellers' market I have seen in the last 45 years of monitoring airline pilot hiring," says Louis Smith, a retired airline pilot who runs the pilot-counseling outfit.
Smith says forums for aspiring pilots that once drew a couple dozen people now sometimes attract more than 150. Some hope to make a mid-career change, which was rare just a few years ago.
Aaron Ludomirski is one of those career-changers. The 31-year-old from Asbury Park, New Jersey, says he always wanted to be a pilot but studied business instead because the bleak job opportunities for pilots in the years after 9/11 didn't justify the cost of school and flight training. After college he started an online marketing business.
"Year after year I found myself less and less satisfied with my work," he says. "I started thinking about what kind of career would really lead me to feeling fulfilled and accomplished, and I kept coming back to aviation."
Ludomirski did some fresh research and learned that pilots were back in demand — and more would be retiring in the next few years. He quit his job and went to flight school. Now he is working as a flight instructor to gain the required flying time for an airline pilot.
"I can interview for and even accept a conditional letter of employment and know I have my dream job lined up for me when I'm ready," he says.
Applications for commercial aviation majors at the University of North Dakota, a big aeronautical school, have more than doubled in the last three years, says Elizabeth Bjerke, an aviation professor and one of the authors of the university's widely watched forecast on pilot supply.
Some students graduate early to take advantage of the job market and the chance to move up the seniority list quickly because so many older pilots are retiring.
"Our graduates will fly at the regionals for a very short period," Bjerke said. "They are getting picked up by the major carriers in their mid-20s, which would have been just crazy to think of 15 or 20 years ago."
Michael Wiggins, chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says his school's graduates are getting multiple job offers from regional airlines.
Pilots who become captains on jumbo jets that fly international routes can earn more than $300,000 a year. But for anyone starting out in the profession, the training is expensive — upward of $100,000.
A few years ago, those who made it faced starting pay for first officers or co-pilots at regional airlines in the low-$20,000s. With bonuses and higher hourly rates, some regionals now claim to offer starting pay of $80,000 or more, but even that might not be enough to meet future demand.
The Regional Airline Association is pushing to change a 2013 federal rule that requires 1,500 hours of flying time — usually in small, single-engine planes — by replacing some of it with supervised classroom instruction. The group's president, Faye Malarkey Black, says supervised training would produce aviators with skills more relevant to piloting an airliner.
But a similar proposal appears stalled in Congress, partly due to opposition from families of the 50 people who died in the last deadly crash of a U.S. airliner, a Colgan Air plane in 2009. Black believes the Trump administration has the authority to change the minimum flight hours without waiting for Congress to act, but she admits that will be difficult "as long as those changes are successfully cast as rolling back safety."
JetBlue Airways is beginning a small-scale program of training people with no flying experience — an approach used by Lufthansa and other international airlines. The JetBlue program costs about $125,000, however, the airline says it is looking into providing financial assistance.
Even with assistance, however, life for newcomers can be taxing. In addition to flying smaller planes for lower wages, they work on holidays and spend lots of time away from home.
Starting pilots need "a passion for flying that drives the thrill of going to work," says Smith, the career adviser. "It's certainly not for everyone."