The commercial airline industry is currently facing a shortage of pilots unprecedented in recent decades. As Jon Evans observed at TechCrunch last week, the number of active pilots in the US has fallen from over 800,000 in 1980 to just 600,000 in 2017, a quarter of whom are student pilots who are unqualified to operate commercial flights. And as Evans discovered by taking up pilot training himself, part of the reason behind that shortage is that the training is “complicated, and difficult, and stressful”; many would-be pilots get frustrated and give up long before they make it to the big leagues.
Another barrier to entry, however, is expense. The reason so many commercial pilots have military backgrounds is that the military is about the only place pilots can log the thousands of hours of flight time they need to become certifiable commercial pilots without having to pay for it themselves. With the US airline industry expecting to face a shortage of 3,500 commercial pilots by 2020, Travel Weekly’s Robert Silk takes note of a new vocational training program American Airlines is launching in an effort to build a bigger pipeline to the cockpit:
The Cadet Academy will train participants for up to 18 months at American Airlines’ partner flight schools in Dallas, the Fort Lauderdale area, Memphis or Phoenix. Students will follow what American calls “a carefully choreographed flight-training track, where you will learn the skills to become a safe and competent aviator.”
Those who finish the program will have the opportunity to interview at [American’s wholly owned regional carriers] Envoy, Piedmont and PSA. Program applicants need not have experience in the cockpit. Participants will have the option of receiving financing from Discover Student Loans. The company said it would offer loans at competitive rates, either variable or fixed, that have no fees. Payments can be deferred for up to three-and-a-half years.
American’s new program is in keeping with a trend among employers facing current or prospective shortages of talent in their industries: Rather than wait for governments or educational institutions to produce more qualified candidates, they are taking matters into their own hands. The most notable companies pursuing these self-starting workforce development strategies are tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook, but other companies are also investing in vocational training on the blue-collar side of the labor market.
Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines announced that it was paying out over $1.1 billion in profit sharing to its more than 80,000 employees, which Fortune reported was the second-largest payout in its history after the $1.5 billion it shared last year. Over the past five years, Delta said it had paid out nearly $5 billion through its profit sharing program, which returns 20 percent of its annual pre-tax profits to the employees if they exceed $2.5 billion and 10 percent if not.
Profit sharing has become an increasingly common feature of progressive employers in recent years, in sectors from manufacturing to tech and show business. Advocates have touted it as a potential remedy to the problem of wage stagnation at a time when many corporations are posting record profits.
The good news for Delta’s employees was somewhat less welcome to its competitors, however. At American Airlines, which introduced profit sharing in 2016 at a rate of 5 percent, and whose profits for 2017 were smaller than Delta’s, employees are “concerned because their profit sharing rate is less than at either Delta or United,” Ted Reed observed at Forbes:
A Delta captain will get a payout of $29,000 to $59,000, according to the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American pilots, while a United captain gets between $9,300 and $20,500 and an American captain gets $3,600 to $7,500. … The union wants to discuss higher profit sharing with management, APA spokesman Dennis Tajer said Wednesday.
American Airlines’ market value took a hit last week after its CEO Douglas Parker told investors of a plan to raise wages for crew members by an average of 6.5 percent, or a total of $930 million through 2019. Amid criticism, Parker stood by his decision, but within 48 hours, the company’s stock dropped by more than 8 percent, wiping out roughly $1.9 billion in American’s market value.
Rising fuel and labor costs are eating into profit margins across the industry, and low-cost competitors are making it difficult for airlines to increase fares. From investors’ perspective, this unexpected pay raise was simply not justified and raised the risk of an industry-wide wage war. So was American’s punishment fair?
Missing the Talent Connection
After the announcement, Citigroup analyst Kevin Crissey wrote in a note to clients: “This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers.” Of course, this simply is not true. As Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik observed, “From 2014-2016, American Airlines authorized $9 billion in share buybacks, money that went directly into shareholders’ pockets… By contrast, the pay raises will cost American $1 billion over three years.” It is however, still too common for investors to view payments to employees as a zero-sum loss to shareholder value.