While some of the circumstances being cited are new, there's much about this looming crisis that's familiar. It seems the alarm sounds over this same, always imminent, threat about once per decade. And yet, collapse never seems to materialize, at least not among the air carriers. General aviation's is a different kind of personnel crisis.
I submit that the means to defuse the airline pilot shortage is well known: Money, mostly, and technology.
The starting pay at some regionals is terrible. And as the Experimental Aircraft Association's Mac McClellan correctly noted at a recent Wichita Aero Club panel discussion, the main objectors are the parents who get stuck with their kid's flight training and academic bills. They know that spending $100,000+ for a career that pays bag-boy wages is a lousy investment, and simply refuse. Pay more, and they will come. That will help raise wages — and career appeal — throughout the professional ranks.
In addition, increasingly carriers, especially foreign lines, are embracing the model long followed by the world's military aviation forces and certain carriers such as Lufthansa. Simply, select the most eager and able young folks and teach them to fly. Yes, that costs some serious money as well, but the results are generally superb.
And as quickly as regs such as the ATP requirement for copilots are imposed, they can be withdrawn or modified. I submit that an intense curriculum of simulator training and testing, monitoring flights and mentoring might assuage fretful legislators.
As for the decline of the general aviation pilot population — the AOPA reports the number of active U.S. pilots has dropped 25% from 827,000 in 1980 to 617,000 today — the causes are more complex and solutions less obvious. Here, I suspect likely candidates have determined that the costs and operational demands of private piloting are far out of line with the perceived rewards. And the consequence of human error or equipment malfunction can be death, which is a severe outcome for one's pastime.
I submit that the fix lies in technology, not the romance of piloting. What I suggested to that same Wichita audience was an utterly reliable, easy-to-program, hands-free, affordable vehicle that happens to fly. An iPad airplane. The technology is at hand. The regulations will follow. And so will the users. No, they won't be pilots, but they could rejuvenate an industry in failing health.
Should such a thing come to pass, just imagine the travel tales at the next family reunion.