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SWAPA in the News: Your Pilot Has a New Job — and a Bigger Plane to Fly

SWAPA in the News: Your Pilot Has a New Job — and a Bigger Plane to Fly

November 07, 2023

Airlines’ hiring binge has suddenly thrust many pilots behind the controls of different, bigger planes than they are used to flying.

That rapid advancement to new cockpit seats is fueling anxieties over whether pilots’ newness to certain aircraft could lead to more minor mishaps that go unnoticed by the flying public—or more serious incidents and accidents.

Pilot newness to airplanes’ make and model—a known but intangible risk—is among the factors U.S. air-safety and aviation-industry officials have looked at since air travel’s fast, and often strained bounceback from the pandemic.

This aspect of “juniority,” as some call it in the industry, has emerged in the aftermath of some serious incidents over the last two years. Pilots, airline officials and safety experts are scrutinizing the experience level of the people in the cockpit in such incidents, though there is no indication that investigators have focused on pilot inexperience as a factor.

With travel demand soaring, pilots are moving up through the ranks faster than before. Major carriers are pulling pilots from regional carriers more quickly, with pilots used to smaller airliners advancing to bigger planes, needing to learn new procedures, controls and quirks. 

Airlines that hurried pilots out the door during the height of the pandemic had to quickly pivot when demand surged back. Major carriers have added nearly 10,000 pilots to their ranks this year, on track to outpace a record pilot hiring spree that saw them bring on over 13,000 aviators last year, according to FAPA.aero, a pilot career advisory firm. That is up from about 5,400 in 2021which had been the busiest year for pilot hiring in decades. 

The airline industry has faced periods of rapid growth and hiring before. While some longtime pilots and industry officials have expressed alarm at the current magnitude of pilot newness to the planes they are flying, senior U.S. aviation officials say they haven’t seen the trend manifest itself into broader safety problems. 

There is precedent for concern, however. 

After the last major fatal U.S. passenger airline crash in 2009, the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general found a correlation between accidents and pilot experience with aircraft type. Analyzing 322 airline accidents from January 2000 to December 2009, the office found fewer accidents involving pilots who had more time flying the aircraft make and model. The report didn’t find a link with overall experience.

Aware of the risk since the airline industry rebounded after the pandemic, U.S. air-safety and aviation-industry officials have been examining closely held data to determine whether recent mishaps are related to the influx of more pilots who are less familiar with their airplanes’ controls than more-seasoned colleagues, people familiar with the matter said. Pilots new to certain aircraft may have broader overall experience flying other jetliners. 

So far, the rate of incidents—including those involving pilots new to the make and model—hasn’t increased this year, compared with last year or 2019, FAA officials said. “We’re monitoring that very closely,” David Boulter, the FAA’s safety chief, said in an interview. “The numbers are looking within the norm.”

The industrywide battle for pilots has jolted the slow, methodical career progress to which many pilots were accustomed. Smaller regional carriers are struggling to hold on to pilots for more than a few years.   

About 8,000 regional pilots are expected to move on to bigger airlines this year—44% of the regional pilot workforce, according to analysis by consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Before the pandemic, the firm estimates regional pilot turnover was about 10% to 20%.

The pace of hiring and the resulting turnover is unprecedented, said Bryan Bedford, chief executive of Republic Airways, which operates flights for United, Delta and American Airlines. “While there’s tremendous experience within the industry, I do have a concern over the experience in seat,” he said at an industry conference in September. “I think we should at least ask those questions.”

Even at larger airlines, some pilots are able to move from smaller planes to bigger ones or to upgrade from first officer to captain years faster than the decade-long waits they sometimes faced in the past.

“These upgrade times—they are insane right now,” said Kit Darby, who consults on pilot hiring and careers.

Rob Graves, a major U.S. airline pilot for more than 30 years, said first officers he flies with who are new to the controls are sharp and quick learners. But they can require more mentoring—what he sees as part of a captain’s job description—and that can mean correcting minor errors that come with being an apprentice. In one case, he said, a co-pilot new to the 737 activated the aircraft’s auto-throttles for takeoff before its engines finished revving up. 

“Sometimes one engine will run out faster than the other,” Graves said. “If that happens, the airplane is gonna try to go off one side of the runway, so I had to pull the throttles.”

In August, a Delta Air Lines pilot fresh out of training flights with the Boeing 757 was landing one of the jets in Atlanta, people familiar with the matter said. But the plane didn’t have a working anti-skid system, which prevents the plane’s wheels from locking, helping avoid dangerous skids, brake fires or blown tires. Typically that might not be considered enough of a problem to prevent the plane from flying–airlines often dispatch planes for a period when certain components need repair.

When the plane touched down, at least one of its tires blew and one of the landing gear caught fire, prompting an emergency response. Passengers had to evacuate via inflatable slides.

“It was a very rough landing,” said Jean Druckenmiller, a college administrator who was a passenger on the flight.  “It was kind of scary.” Delta said it was proud of how its flight crew handled the situation and how airport teams safely evacuated passengers to the airport concourse.

The incident generated significant attention within Delta, people familiar with the matter said. Discussions inside the airline have centered around the first officer’s inexperience and whether that pilot—who was flying—may have relied too heavily on brakes to slow the jet, rather than thrust-reversers, which are generally used along with the brakes, depending on conditions.

There have been discussions about the crew’s communication and the captain’s decision not to handle the landing personally.

The FAA said it was too soon to conclude what factors played a role. Delta has since stopped dispatching Boeing aircraft whose anti-skid features aren’t working. Delta said the captain had nearly a decade of experience at the airline, and that the first officer had earlier completed separate training at the carrier.

Delta said it reviewed the events and found the crew acted within established procedures and made sound decisions. A spokesman said its decision to stop dispatching Boeing planes without working anti-skid systems was “informed by a wholistic safety perspective” and not tied to experience levels of pilots new to the airline.  

“Delta’s dedication to safety is innate and deep within the core of our operational approach,” the airline said in a statement. 

Veteran accident investigators say it can be difficult to directly link mishaps to pilot experience with specific aircraft. There are other concrete factors such as weather or miscommunication that play more obvious roles. After a United plane—with a pilot relatively new to the type—sustained damage to its tail while landing at Houston in March, accident investigators blamed the first officer’s slip-ups but didn’t flag his inexperience with the aircraft. Pilots with extensive experience can also make mistakes or become complacent.  

“It’s a squishy science,” said Jeff Guzzetti, a former top U.S. accident investigator who wrote the DOT inspector general’s report that found a correlation between accident data and newness to aircraft make and model. “It would take a lot of psychology and analysis, and deep investigation to even attempt to get at something like that with one particular accident.”

A Senate aviation panel is planning to hold a hearing on close-calls in U.S. aviation on Nov. 9 with government and industry officials. 

Some carriers are focusing on so-called green-on-green pairing, to make sure both pilots at the controls aren’t too new and have a higher aggregate level of experience in the cockpit, the FAA’s Boulter said.

Garth Thompson, chairman of the union that represents United pilots, said the airline’s internal monitoring systems have turned up issues that appear to be correlated with the amount of time pilots have spent in their seats. 

“We face a lot of challenges right now just because of the good times—the amount of movement, the rapid amount of hiring and seat changes with incumbent pilots,” Thompson said. “I’m concerned that if it’s not handled properly, it could be unsafe. But I do think it is on the radar and some pretty smart people are working the problem.”

United said, “Our pilots are trained to the highest industry standards, and we continuously analyze training performance to  enhance our programs to promote the highest levels of proficiency.” 

Pilots generally must accumulate 1,500 hours of total flying time before they qualify for jobs at commercial airlines, with some exceptions for those coming from the military or an aviation university or college program. The overall experience requirements don’t apply to specific makes and models. 

Major airlines typically hire pilots with significantly more experience than the minimum, and often look for pilots to have spent time flying larger, more complex passenger jets that fly at higher altitudes. That is the type of experience pilots often gain at regional airlines, rather than in smaller training aircraft. 

Some airlines, including Southwest and Delta, have recently relaxed some of those criteria in an effort to widen the pool of potential applicants, though both carriers say they select from highly qualified, experienced candidates. 

Union officials at the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association say they have seen signs that some newly hired pilots need more assistance. 

Casey Murray, the pilot union’s president, said Southwest will provide more time in simulators or extend a period of flying under supervision—known as initial operating experience—when newly hired pilots need it. But the union believes the airline’s initial training program needs a bigger revamp to better prepare pilots who are qualified but likely wouldn’t have been considered experienced enough for jobs at the airline in the past. 

“You haven’t changed your curriculum to match and address the fact that pilots are being hired with less experience,” he said.  “We are not setting our new hires up for success.” 

Southwest said it has a rigorous training process to ensure competency and that all newly hired first officers must meet its standards by passing several checks throughout its training. The airline said it is confident in its training program and in its pilots’ abilities. 

At American Airlines, some pilots have received captain positions in less than 18 months. Before the pandemic, it was typically at least a four to five year wait, said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the union that represents American pilots. 

At Delta, some pilots have been awarded captain positions in their first year at the airline during rapid growth periods like this one. 

But the airline said the average captain has nearly six-and-a-half years of experience at Delta before upgrading. All pilots go through additional training to become captains.

Reviews of flight safety data and pilot demographics haven’t shown any significant correlation between potential safety findings and the amount of time a pilot has spent as a captain, the airline said. 

It isn’t necessarily about age. Older pilots switching between an Airbus to a Boeing can struggle as much—or more—than pilots at the beginning of their careers, some longtime pilots say. 

“I had a student who was 31 years old, that upgraded to captain. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s only 31!’ But I mean, he did great,” said one pilot who conducts proficiency checks of pilots at a major airline. Spending a few years flying at a regional airline, including as a captain, can be key, he said. “My best students are the regional pilots that come up.”

Robert Sumwalt, a former airline pilot who later became chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was impressed with a nice landing by a new United Airlines pilot when he was a passenger recently. It was her third for the airline, and done with oversight by an experienced captain he happened to know.

“It was kind of refreshing,” Sumwalt said. “Despite having a lot of new pilots, the system is still working.”

Big airlines say they still have their pick of pilots and have had no trouble hiring aviators who come in with significant experience from the military or time at other airlines, including as captains. 

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the largest U.S. airlines, said that while some newly hired pilots may have slightly less experience than historical averages, “We have seen no data indicating there has been any negative impact on safety.”  

Airlines in some cases have been taking steps to reduce the potential risk with changes to training, industry and FAA officials said.

“If you’ve been using experience as a mitigator, what are you doing to look at other mitigators?” Boulter, of the FAA, said regulators have been asking airlines. “Because it’s all about building barriers to error and to accidents.”

United said it added training and flying time for new hires. It is also requiring all pilots to take a longer course to upgrade to captain, even if they are staying in the same type of plane. 

Sasha Johnson, United’s vice president corporate safety, said the airline has started to mine two years’ worth of safety data to identify trends related to pilot experience. The airline is looking at the threshold of 500 hours, or about a year, in a seat, including pairings of captains and first officers with different levels of experience.

“We’ve seen some interesting things,” she said at a pilot conference in September. “I think we’ll see more as we get more mature in the process.”

Read the full article on the Wall Street Journal