Alaska Airlines faces impending shortage of pilots

May 11, 2017, 8:24 AM | Updated: 8:44 am
Alaska Airlines...
Alaska Air training mechanic Scott Warth speaks with student Anais King about careers in aviation at the Alaska maintenance hanger at SeaTac Airport. (Josh Kerns/KIRO Radio)
(Josh Kerns/KIRO Radio)

From its expanded routes to swallowing rival Virgin America, Alaska Airlines continues its record growth. But there’s a looming downside to all that success.

The Seattle-based carrier faces an impending shortage of pilots and others to keep the airline flying high into the future.

“This year alone we’re going to hire 2,300 front line employees. And that includes pilots, flight attendants, maintenance, agents,” said Carlos Zendejas, the Seattle-based chief pilot for Alaska.

Zendejas was among hundreds of employees who volunteered last weekend for the airline’s annual Aviation Day.

More than 1,000 students gathered in the massive Alaska maintenance hanger at the south end of Sea-Tac airport to get an up close look at the airline’s operations.

Spokesperson Bobbi Egan says the airline works hard to reach out to local schools to make young people aware of the opportunities.

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“The goal here is to show young people that there are so many opportunities here in the Pacific Northwest, whether you work for Alaska, Boeing, the Port of Seattle,” Egan said.

But there’s no seemingly greater need than to prepare the next generation of pilots.

The Regional Airlines Association forecasts the major carriers like Alaska will need upwards of 18,500 pilots new pilots by the end of 2020, while there are just 18,000 potential candidates in the pipeline currently flying for regional carriers — the major source of pilots for the big airlines.

Zendejas says two big things happened to spark the shortage — in the past decade the FAA mandated pilots retire at age 65, while many potential pilots chose other careers during the recession, in part because entry level flying jobs pay so little.

“Right now we’re still doing very well.  But as you look two years down the road the supply is certainly going to get very tight,” Zendejas said.

And there’s a good reason why Alaska and other airlines are doing all they can to head that off.

Zendejas says the industry might be faced with lowering pilot requirements if it doesn’t have enough flyers for the future.

“Right now at Alaska, if you’re going to apply you have to have at least three thousand hours of flight time, a little less if you come from the military, ” Zendejas said.

“But as you start to go forward and not all the people are available that would have those qualifications, I think all the major airlines will have to start looking and go ‘well, instead of 3,000 hours, maybe we’re looking at 2,500 hours.”

But Zendejas insists we shouldn’t be worried about that impacting safety, because all new Alaska hires will still go through the airline’s stringent ground and air training before they earn their wings.

But what if you don’t want to be a pilot? A big part of last weekend’s annual aviation day is to inspire kids from all walks of life to pursue a career in the ever growing industry.

Anais King, 18, is one of those.

“About a year ago I was introduced to something called Young Eagles. And it was where we were able to be flown in an airplane. And I was just enthralled.  I looked out of the window and said ‘I want to do this,'” she said.

The home-schooled high school senior has always had an interest in engineering. And thanks to her exposure to Alaska, she’s now considering a career in aviation.

When people hear aviation they think pilots, but in aviation you can be an engineer, a mechanic, or many other things. There are just so many fields.

In fact, Alaska says it’s even competing with the likes of Microsoft and Amazon for top tech talent – another reason for spreading the word through Aviation Day and other outreach.

“We also go down to Aviation High School, we talk to them. We talk to the different universities.  As a matter of fact, Green River (College) now has a four-year aviation program right here in our own backyard,” Zendejas said.

More by KIRO Radio’s Josh Kerns

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Alaska Airlines faces impending shortage of pilots