WASHINGTON -- The airline industry will face a critical shortage of qualified pilots and mechanics over the next decade and may no longer be able to rely on traditional sources to supply them, government and industry officials say.
"The demand for experienced pilots will outstrip the supply" of workers entering the labor force, said James B. Busey, deputy transport secretary, at the first meeting yesterday of a blue-ribbon advisory panel commissioned to study the issue.
"We are facing, sometime in the future, a real crisis that could affect the lives of lots of Americans," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee.
U.S. airlines will need 35,000 new pilots and roughly 30,000 new mechanics by 2003, according to the most recent data. Commercial airlines alone expect to hire 2,400 new pilots a year over the next 10 years.
Over the same period, the need for qualified pilots and mechanics will increase by 2.4 percent a year, faster than any other occupation, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Currently, 135,000 pilots and 130,000 mechanics are licensed in the United States. No specific data were available to measure the projected shortfall.
But the supply of skilled workers is likely to shrink as budget cuts lead to a smaller U.S. military, which has been the primary supplier of pilots to the civilian sector since World War II. The military also is making more of an effort to retain its top professionals.
Based on current figures, the Pentagon might be succeeding. Last year, 45 percent of all commercial pilots had received their training from the military, down from 65 percent several years ago.
Commuter airlines, long considered a farm system for their larger brethren, also have been able to hold on to more of their key personnel. Industry experts attribute the shift to the effects of the recession, which has temporarily cooled the airlines' ardor for new hires, and to more attractive financial packages offered by the commuter carriers.
In the go-go 1980s, turnover at some commuter airlines reached as high as 80 percent to 85 percent, according to data from Phaneuf Associates Inc., a Washington consulting company.
Mr. McCain predicted a "short-term glut" in workers as Pentagon budget cuts force military pilots and mechanics to scramble for available private-sector jobs. Once that temporary oversupply is absorbed, however, "There's clearly going to be a smaller pool for the airlines to draw from," he warned.