Could foreign pilots solve the US airline pilot shortage?

Could foreign pilots swoop in and help US airlines alleviate the pilot shortage?
Jam Travels /

Pilot unions, airlines, and regional carriers appear to be on different wavelengths when discussing the current pilot shortage problem in the United States.  

Unions have vehemently denied that the country does not have enough crews to operate aircraft, claiming that the problem is due to the cost of training pilots and the backlog of trainees at flight academies. But airlines have warned that, going forward, there is a risk that reduced pilot numbers could result in operational disruptions.  

Meanwhile, regional carriers have long rung alarm bells that the current system disproportionately affects them, with mainline airlines siphoning their experienced pilots to fly the bigger aircraft within the country. As such, some smaller communities have lost service, which has directly impacted their connectivity and possibly even negatively affected their long-term economic prosperity. 

A regional airline-only problem? 

However, not all airlines are run equally, and some carriers have fared better than others in terms of their pilot rosters. 

For example, in its Q1 2023 financial results Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing, American Airlines warned that “higher than normal number of pilot retirements, more stringent duty time regulations, increased flight hour requirements for commercial airline pilots, reductions in the number of military pilots entering the commercial workforce, increased training requirements and other factors have caused a shortage of pilots that could materially adversely affect our business”. 

According to the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)-based airline, these factors “have contributed to a shortage of qualified, entry-level pilots, shortages of experienced pilots trained and ready for duty, and increased compensation costs materially for pilots throughout the industry”. 

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines has only expressed that “some regional carriers” are experiencing a shortage of “qualified pilots and experiencing operating constraints as a result”. As such, this could result in third-party carriers not complying with their contractual obligations, which Delta claimed could reduce “expected capacity” and “affect our revenue, resulting in a material adverse effect on our business and results of operations”. 

The difference between the risk factors highlighted by Delta Air Lines and American Airlines is that the latter referred to the issue an industry-wide problem. Delta recognized that the problem was mostly affecting regional carriers, including its regional associate, Endeavor Air.  

United Airlines, another ‘member’ of the Big Four US airlines, referred back to its SEC filing from 2022 in its Q1 2023 risk factors assessment, where the airline stated that disruptions to its “regional network and United Express flights provided by third-party regional carriers could adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial condition”. 

However, again, United Airlines highlighted adversity at its regional affiliates, rather than mainline operations. 

Captain shortage 

The risk factors expressed by the three largest airlines in the US have largely been repeated by one of the biggest pilot unions in the US, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA). 

According to a page on ALPA’s website, aptly titled “More Than Enough Pilots to Meet U.S. Airline Demand,” the US industry has “about 1.5 certificated pilots relative to demand”, the union noted, citing data from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  

“So, although we don’t have a pilot shortage, we do have a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be upfront about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay,” ALPA added.  

“From July 2013 through March 2023, the United States has produced nearly 64,000 ATP [Airline Transport Pilot – ed. note] and R-ATP [Restricted ATP – ed. note] certificated pilots,” ALPA continued.  

Per the labor collective, during the same period carriers in the US hired around 40,000 pilots: 17,875 to backfill for retiring pilots and 21,875 to fuel growth. 

Jason Ambrosi, the president of ALPA, added more context to the situation during a US House of Representatives hearing in April 2023. Writing in his testimony prior to the event, Ambrosi stated that regional carriers are facing pilot attrition rather than a shortage.  

“The regional airline industry is necessarily fragile by its structure,” Ambrosi noted, before going on to explain that because mainline airlines control regional airline operations, including ticket revenue and schedules, this has resulted “in low pilot regional pay, poor work rules, single-digit operating margins, fewer regional carriers, and pilot-retention problems”. 

During the same hearing, Faye Malarkey Black, the president, and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Regional Airline Association (RAA), highlighted that while regional airlines have “adopted many self-help measures to address the shortage” it is not enough. 

Black added: “That is why we are focused on partnering with Congress, the Administration, and interested stakeholder groups to safely address the impacts the pilot shortage is having on our industry, passengers, and the communities we serve.”  

According to Black’s message in the RAA’s Annual Report for 2022, the pilot shortage of yesterday “has even introduced today’s particularly pronounced Captain shortage, a problem so deep it could slow the hiring of First Officers, who can’t fly without Captains”. 

“Policymakers, take heed. Action is overdue, and we need your leadership and courage today,” Black continued, calling for lawmakers to “move heaven and earth to make it easier for aspiring pilots from all backgrounds to access affordable, high-quality training”.  

Per the same RAA report, in 2022, the association’s airlines flew the following larger aircraft types: ATR 47/72, Mitsubishi (ex-Bombardier) CRJ200, CRJ700, and CRJ900, De Havilland Canada Dash 8 Q100, Q200, Q300, and Q400, and finally, the Embraer ERJ145 and ERJ170/175 aircraft.  

By the end of 2022, 89.4% of the total 1,852 regional airline aircraft fleet was powered by jet engines, meaning that many flights from smaller airports in the US were flown by either the CRJ200, CRJ700, CRJ900 or the Embraer types mentioned above.  

Turning to other regions 

North America and the US are not the only regions where such aircraft are operated, with plenty of airlines in other parts of the world utilizing smaller regional jets for their operations.

According to data, 7,659 regional aircraft were delivered to airlines globally, including 5,356 from the Mitsubishi CRJ and Embraer ERJ aircraft families. Of these, 4,542 are currently either active, stored, or in maintenance. With a large number of regional aircraft outside the US, regional airlines within the country could look elsewhere to hire certified pilots to fly the same jets that carriers lack crews for.

So, technically, could foreign pilots help the US deal with its pilot labor issues?

“From an immigration perspective, I can cite three main hurdles. Two of them are strictly related to the immigration process, laws, and regulation, and the third one is more political,” Ana Schaffert, a business immigration attorney at AG Immigration, a US-based immigration law group, told AeroTime.

Firstly, a huge backlog of employment visas means that to sponsor a foreign worker to work in the US, employers would have to wait around two years before the visa would be available.

Secondly, Schaffert pointed out that US immigration agencies have been inconsistent, and pilots “with equivalent backgrounds and intended endeavors in the US have applied for visas, and while some can secure a visa, others are denied without a clear standard”.

Schaffert expanded on the second point, highlighting three main visas that could be obtained by pilots. For example, the EB2-NIW visa, which enables a person to obtain a green card without a job offer if “the applicant’s endeavor to the US is in the national interest of the US”.

This visa is an option for pilots to gain a green card (residency permit) in the US if the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rules that the endeavor could, for example, have a positive effect in an economically depressed area.

“We have been arguing that the significant disruption in the aviation industry could sustain that it was an area under depression and that having a pilot that can work as a pilot and as an instructor, for example, in which he can help to form new pilots could be a matter of national interest. Although most cases have been successful, we had some cases denied under the same premises,” Schaffert noted.

Then there are the H1-B and E-3 visas intended for special occupation positions. While both are similar in terms of requirements, Schaffert highlighted that the USCIS “repeatedly determined that the piloting profession does not qualify as a specialty occupation under the H1-B visa but has been accepting E-3 applications for pilots”.

Schaffert noted that pilot unions “have been pressing against foreign pilots coming to the U.S. to work, which directly affects the ability to promote changes that could expedite the visas for pilots”.

There are other instances that could be listed as well, such as generating jobs to the US or performing research/furtherance of human knowledge. But in the pilots’ world, the “positive effect in an economically depressed area” is more pertinent.

Fewer expats 

The US has been an attractive market for pilots, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many pilots were fired and furloughed, and, because of that, they sought the US as a safe haven since it had a more robust and resilient market,” Schaffert observed.

The tables turned once the world began to reopen and the markets normalized elsewhere. AG Immigration estimates that pilot visa applications are 50% lower so far in 2023 than in the same period in 2022. AG Immigration received 771 and 863 pilot applications in 2021 and 2022, respectively. According to the FAA, by the end of 2022, there were 756,928 pilots in the US, with 166,738 holding an ATP.

But even if the numbers were not high, the airline market in the country has its advantages and has lured pilots to attempt to obtain working visas in the US.

“Some of them who come from countries with less labor regulation like the U.S., as carriers here in America usually offer better labor protection and quality of life than some companies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, for example,” Schaffert explained.

A strong union presence is another draw for pilots, the attorney added, as they “want to have their rights protected and advance in their careers, so unions and associations are a big part of that”.

“Ironically, unions are also the same entities that most advocate against hiring foreign pilots,” Schaffert remarked.

Perhaps one reason why few pilots choose to settle in the US is the “immigration bureaucracy and the US taxation systems,” Schaffert added.

However, in some cases the salaries and career prospects offered by US airlines, as well as the fact that pilots can bring their families once they obtain their visas, can offset those drawbacks.

Another reason could be the fact that in Europe, for example, pilots who leave flight schools have a so-called ‘frozen’ Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), allowing them to be directly employed at an airline as a First Officer, where they can accumulate 1,500 flight hours and ‘unfreeze’ their licenses.

In the US, an R-ATP, much like a frozen ATPL, requires at least 1,000 flight hours, and the flight hour requirements to unfreeze the license are the same. However, an R-ATP is only available to graduates of an aviation-related bachelor’s degree from an FAA-approved school or to graduates that have an associate degree with an aviation major. The R-ATP can then be obtained once a pilot has accumulated 1,250 flight hours.

As such, a cadet that has just left a flight school and begun to carve out their career at an airline is perhaps less likely to be persuaded to switch not only employers but continents, at least not at the beginning of their piloting journey.

Carriers in the US are looking to solve the problem domestically by creating flight schools, while unions and associations, including ALPA and the RAA, have pushed legislators to ease conditions for young aviators to advance in their piloting careers.

“From what I can see, the biggest challenge is bringing younger people to piloting careers. Becoming a pilot is highly costly and time-consuming, which keeps new generations away,” Schaffert concluded.

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