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The pilot shortage is 'only going to get worse,' union president says

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Thousands of flights across the country have been canceled over the past week, largely due to the ongoing pilot shortage and severe weather.

According to Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilot Association union, the lack of pilots issue isn’t going away any time soon.

“This is going to go for the rest of the decade, and it’s only going to get worse,” Murray said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “And we’re seeing less and less people move into the pilot ranks at the bottom. I like to call it ‘cradle to career.’ And it’s taking longer to get there, and fewer and fewer people are entering our profession.”

A screen showing cancelled flights is seen at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on December 26, 2021. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
A screen showing cancelled flights is seen at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on December 26, 2021. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

There are several causes for the shortage. Part of it stems from the coronavirus pandemic, in which many pilots were encouraged to retire early in order to avoid industry-wide layoffs.

Other pilots were furloughed during the pandemic. When pilots are inactive for a certain period of time, their certifications can lapse, meaning they need time to resume their training.

According to Simple Flying, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued only 4,928 ATPs (airline transport pilot certificates) in 2021, which was less than half the projected number for that year. In order to be certified, pilots need at least 1,500 hours of training while captains need 2,500 hours of flying, according to Airline Weekly.

“As far as the pipeline goes, everyone is hiring right now,” Murray said. “It's kind of a perfect storm that's going on with pilots having the choice for the first time ever as to where they go. They're getting multiple offers from multiple major airlines. But again, [the shortage] is going to go for the rest of the decade, and it's only going to get worse.”

Contract negotiations are also playing a role, particularly at Southwest Airlines (LUV). More than 1,300 pilots for the airline have taken to the picket line to protest while union leaders work with industry executives to reach a new agreement.

A customer speaks with a Delta Airlines employee at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on January 13, 2022 amid the ongoing pilot shortage. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
A customer speaks with a Delta Airlines employee at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on January 13, 2022, amid the ongoing pilot shortage. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

While getting higher salaries is “absolutely” a part of it, Murray said, “we’ve also lost 20,000 days off in the past year due to involuntarily coming in to work, and our pilots voluntarily do that all the time. We’ve given 164,000 days to Southwest. We are Southwest Airlines. We do more with less. So we want that recognized, and we want Southwest to come to the table and get something sooner rather than later so that this pilot shortage doesn’t affect us in the future and affect network and revenue opportunities for Southwest.”

Southwest isn’t the only airline in the middle of negotiations. United Airlines (UAL) recently came to an agreement with its employees, implementing a 14% pay raise and paid maternity leave for its pilots. Other airline unions are still negotiating terms for their employees as well.

“We’re kind of at an inflection point right now in the industry, as far as pilots go,” Murray said. “There is a critical shortage that’s going on. All of the major airlines right now are negotiating contracts. And with a limited number of pilots out there to be hired, whomever has the best contract is really going to be able to recruit and retain the best possible pilots there are.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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