Pilot shortage exacerbated by ‘mandatory retirements,’ union spokesperson says

Captain Dennis Tajer, Allied Pilots Association Spokesperson, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss holiday travel demand, the pilot shortage, and issues with how airlines are operating and training pilots.

Video transcript

BARRY BIFFLE: We're seeing a lot more leisure travel. I mean, we're a country that just didn't have a lot of vacation time. And so we're seeing that now unleashed. And so the demand for travel is unbridled. And the holiday season is no exception.

AKIKO FUJITA: That was the CEO of Frontier Airlines speaking with us last week on upbeat demand for travel. And while that's welcome news for airlines, the pipeline of new pilots remains a pain point for the industry. Today's chart of the day highlights the pilot shortage, demonstrating a projection of how demand will outpace supply with the global pilot shortage will emerge in certain regions no later than 2023, and most likely even before that.

Well, more than 4 and 1/2 million people are set to travel this holiday weekend. That marks an 8% increase from last year. Airlines have scrambled to staff up to avoid the travel chaos that we saw over the summer, but our next guest says the nation's pilots are still under a lot of stress.

Let's bring in Captain Dennis Tajer. He is spokesperson for the Allied Pilot Association, which represents pilots for American Airlines. Great to talk to you today. We know the travelers are out in full force already at the airports. What's that meant for the pilot?

DENNIS TAJER: Well, it's-- frankly, it's pushed us to the brink of fatigue, not because of our passengers-- because of management's inability to plan for this. There were no shoulder months. We went from summer to busy fall. We've never seen that before. So we've had not had a break. But I'd like to point something out. Right now, you can look at your phone. You see the weather is clear. Mother Nature is being kind. We're seeing a very reliable operation as far as cancelations go.

We have to note that this summer, we demanded from our management team that they institute a holiday pay, holiday season pay. And they will have a more reliable airline ahead of time. That's what we're seeing now. Our pilots have stepped up. They're able to pre-plan. And they've kept this operation looking very sharp right now.

Management still is doing it on the cheap. They don't want to do that over the summer holidays. But we're working with them. And when they work with us, these outside the box ideas are producing results. And it's happening this Thanksgiving season right now.

Unfortunately, we do have some delays. We have delays happening that's not for weather. We have security clearance issues for our pilots. They're not being expedited through TSA like they used to be. So all of this is aggregating, and the system is shifting. But until and unless management teams and, in case, regulators work with us with our ideas, we're not going to see the fulsome run of the airline business. But this week so far, we like what we see.

But I got to tell you, we are still on the brink of fatigue. Management teams like your CEO at Frontier, I don't know how he runs his operation, but at American Airlines, they're building our schedules to the maximum. And our pilots are saying, I still need a work-life balance. And I need scheduling practices that have some certainty in it, just like our passengers.

AKIKO FUJITA: When you say they're building the schedule to the maximum, what does that look like in terms of hours and the turnaround?

DENNIS TAJER: There you hit it. Maximum hours, there's FAA maximums. They're building it with very little buffer still. And we're lucky this week Mother Nature is cooperating. But then they also build these turn times that are very narrow. For instance, we had some 10% to 15% of our flights were delayed by more than 30 minutes. You think if you're a connecting passenger, that delay and the turn time on airplanes, it all collapses on the clock, and you don't make your flight.

So they still haven't quite learned the lesson of a right balance of a reliable operation. We've kept the cancelation rate down due to this holiday pay structure that we demanded from management. And it's working now. And we're hopeful it will work over the Christmas holiday season.

But management can't stop there. They have to loosen up and broaden this schedule so that when our passengers buy a ticket, the odds of them getting to the connecting flight are very high versus just management hopes it works out.

AKIKO FUJITA: I mean, we're talking about pilot shortages. I mean, this is not something that just emerged over the last few months. This is something that the industry has had to deal with for years. But I'm struck by the numbers here. You say the pilot training pipeline is backlogged with new hire pilots waiting three months to get an open training slot. So that's just to get the slot. And then that's followed by two months of actual training. Is that a staffing issue as well? What's behind that backlog? And how long will it take to catch up with the demand?

DENNIS TAJER: That's a great point. You nailed it. That's exactly what's going on. Our CEO said it's probably going to take at least another year before they get out of the training backlog problem. Where that started was during the pandemic, management teams, and particularly at American Airlines, they incentivized early retirements. They parked 100 permanently parked retired 100 airplanes. They had leaves of absence. And then they actually furloughed pilots.

Those four things all created a tremendous amount of training. During the pandemic with all the money they got from American taxpayer, they were supposed to keep us trained. They didn't. So coming out of the pandemic, they were already way behind the power curve. And they're still trying to catch up. And now we have 800 to 900 pilots retiring, mandatory retirement every year going forward. This is a steep incline.

The only answer here is, one, we can unleash their training pipeline. It's in our contractual agreement. We've already proposed it. They like the idea, but they are still sitting on an old contract that they don't want to settle with us. So in the airline business, the summer is really tomorrow.

As far as getting enough pilots that they're there, waiting to be trained, but to get them trained and out there, the decisions today will affect how much we can fly in the summer. And we don't want to be on TV on any news report, talking about why the summer is not going as well because you don't have enough pilots.

This is up to management. We've got the solutions. We're proving it this week. And if they just joined us in this and unleashed what we can do-- because the secret of success right now is doing more with the pilots that you have. And we have those answers, and we're eager to make it happen. We just need management to show that same eagerness while they show the eagerness to sell tickets that we're not certain they can fulfill going forward.

AKIKO FUJITA: What does all this mean from a safety standpoint? I mean, there's a lot of people watching this who are about to head out to the airports to fly, saying, pilots are being overworked. In some cases, the copilot isn't there. That's not a huge boost to confidence. What are your concerns as you see the staffing stretched so thin?

DENNIS TAJER: Well, number one, our passengers have to know that we are the last line of defense. And we are going to protect that margin of safety, even when we're being pushed, but we're human. The FAA actually requires just because you're legal doesn't mean it's safe or smart to do. And that's where a fatigue call comes in.

So even though I may be legal by the FAA maximums of duty, day, and flight, if I'm not feeling that I'm going to be fit upon landing some two hours away, I cannot sign a box that says fit for duty. We're going to maintain that safety margin. But the first thing that goes when you're fatigued is your judgment, and we're human beings. When you're being pushed to the brink of fatigue on a regular basis-- and our reports show that.

We've had some days a tenfold increase in those reports, four to five-fold over the summer, and they're more than double right now. That is more than a canary in the coal mine. That is a lion roaring out of the cave that you're overscheduling us, and you're not providing any buffers. And we're running out of gas. We're going to keep it safe. We're on that airplane, too. But this unnecessary push on pilots has got to stop.

And the FAA is involved in this. And they should be pressing on our management teams to not just schedule an airline that's legal, but schedule one that is rational and has as much safety buffer on it as possible. We're going to hold that up, and we're going to do our job. And passengers just got to know that we are going to fight all the adversaries when it comes to pushing on the margin of safety. So you can exhale. We're on the airplane with you. And we're here to protect you.

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, we appreciate all the hours pilots are putting in and just, I guess, a reminder to travelers to pack a little more patience there. Captain Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association. Good to talk to you today.

DENNIS TAJER: Thank you.