Alaska-based airlines face a pilot shortage

Posted: Monday, July 07, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Alaska-based airlines say they are facing a pilot shortage, with high turnover and open positions. But some in the industry think the nation's airline struggles may steer job-seeking flyers to the northern-most state.

"We are not able to find captains for twin-engine and turbo-prop aircraft, and this is becoming a great concern," said Wilfred "Boyuck" Ryan, president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association and president of Arctic Transportation Services.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens told members of the 21st annual Export Alaska luncheon May 27 that he's worried about the future of aviation in the state.

"Over 70 percent of our cities in the state can only be reached by air service," he said, adding that more than half the state's commercial pilots are older than 55. "This means that we will need to start to replace half of the pilots in Alaska in the next five years."

The age 65 ruling helped some, said Stevens, who was responsible for getting the Federal Aviation Administration rule change to increase the age limit for pilots from 60 years old to age 65.

"Changing this was a huge thing for us," said Jim Jansen, president and CEO of Lynden Inc. shortly after the bill passed. "This means that our more experienced pilots can continue to work and teach the lower-time pilots. It would have been a waste to retire our best pilots at age 60."

Other carriers are also training entry-level positions to meet their needs.

"We take entry level pilots and heavily train them with ground, air and simulator instruction," said Craig Kenmonth, general manager of Frontier Flying Service, based in Fairbanks.

Kenmonth said Frontier has a priority to hire Alaska pilots, but it has been necessary to hire pilots from outside of the state.

"There has been a big turnover in the last 12 months," said Kenmonth.

Kenmonth thinks that the fuel price increases and the subsequent downsizing of the legacy airline fleets and flight frequencies may help solve the Alaska shortage.

"This pilot shortage will be tempered by downsizing, we have to," said Kenmonth. "All the airlines are redirecting their frequencies, this might cut the need for pilots."

"Transportation in this state depends on replacing these pilots," Stevens said. "We must do something now."

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