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Airline pilot shortage? Not clear, report says

By JOAN LOWY

WASHINGTON (AP) a¿¿ It's not clear there is a shortage of airline pilots even though regional airlines report difficulty over the past year in finding enough pilots to hire, according to a draft report by a government watchdog obtained by The Associated Press.

The U.S. airline industry will need to hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years due to an expected surge in retirements of pilots reaching age 65 and increased demand for air travel, the Government Accountability Office said in the report obtained late Thursday.

Eleven out of 12 regional airlines failed to meet their hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year, the report said. However, no major airlines were experiencing problems finding pilots. Some airline officials did express concern that service to some cities might have to be cut back if their regional partners cannot hire enough pilots, the report said.

Major airlines generally pay significantly higher salaries than regional carriers. The average starting salary for first officers at regional airlines is $22,400, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

"Data indicate that a large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand, but whether such pilots are willing or available to work at wages being offered is unknown," the report, which is being released Friday, said. And, the size of these pools of pilots has remained steady since 2000, the report said.

There are currently 66,000 pilots working for U.S. airlines, but there are 109,465 currently active pilots with a first class medical certificate that are licensed to fly passengers, the report said. Plus, there are more than 100,000 other pilots with commercial licenses that might at some point choose to pursue an airline career, the report found.

The unemployment rate for professional pilots is very low, only 2.7 percent. That would normally indicate a shortage, but there are other reasons to believe that may not be the case, according to the report. Average professional pilot salaries went down 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2012, while the number of pilots employed went up 12 percent. Both trends are inconsistent with a shortage, the report said.

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