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A pilot shortage might be why you're facing flight delays and cancelations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the span of two weeks, I've had flights canceled twice, once to London, once to Boston. And judging by my social media feeds, lots of people are having the same experience right now. If delays and cancellations seem like the norm at this moment, well, there are lots of reasons for that. One is a shortage of pilots. During the pandemic, thousands of pilots took early retirement packages when people stopped traveling. So now that people are flying again, why hasn't pilot hiring caught up? Captain Casey Murray is president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, and he's here to talk about what's going on right now. Thanks for joining us.

CASEY MURRAY: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Why is the pool of pilots shrinking even as demand for air travel grows?

MURRAY: Well, we started looking at pilot shortages even in 2018, 2019. We kind of forecast that this was going to be an issue. The pandemic sort of gave us a short-term reprieve, but the real problem was still there. And then, as you mentioned in the lead-in, having thousands of pilots take early outs, it put us in a very precarious situation, and now all of the airlines are trying to catch up.

SHAPIRO: I imagine being a pilot is not like being a barista, where a few days' training can be enough to let you start the job. What does the pipeline look like?

MURRAY: Right now, we're at an inflection point in the industry. All of the major airlines are negotiating new contracts. A lot of prospective pilots really have their choice of where to go. So it's going to be whoever offers the most competitive contract, the most lucrative contract. You know, it's kind of everything's coming together at once.

SHAPIRO: But when you look at things like, you know, pilot school, training programs, things like that, are there enough people getting the skills necessary to eventually become a pilot six months, a year, five years from now?

MURRAY: Well, the short answer is no. I like to call it cradle to career. And there aren't enough people entering for the demands throughout the end of the decade, and that's going to be a challenge. In the short term, you know, it takes 60 to 90 days to interview, hire and put a pilot through training. So the airlines have to be very proactive, and they're really - you know, everybody's competing for the same shrinking pool.

SHAPIRO: I'm kind of surprised the pool is shrinking because I remember in elementary school, every friend of mine wanted to grow up to be a pilot. It's, like, the dream of so many kids. Why aren't there are enough people to actually do the job?

MURRAY: I think there's two reasons. I think the airlines, for the last, you know, few decades, have gone through their ups and downs. There's been furloughs, and a lot of it has to do with the cost and time involved. There are socioeconomic issues that we're hoping to address diversity wise, you know, as we move into the future. But this has to be addressed now.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this is the new reality? Or are things likely to subside after we get through the peak of the summer travel season and everybody kind of gets their pent-up pandemic desire to go somewhere out of their system?

MURRAY: I think all the airlines are working towards that. Unfortunately, this has gone on for over a year. You know, we are seeing improvements. It's going to be much better than last summer and better than the holiday season. There are challenges. They are being addressed. I'm confident that the airline industry is going to get them addressed, and travelers are going to be able to really have the expectation, and that expectation is going to be met.

SHAPIRO: Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, thanks for talking with us.

MURRAY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONEYMOAN'S "WE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Kathryn Fox