As pilots age out of the industry nationwide, major airlines operating out of Denver are vying to get ahead of the staffing problem.

With COVID-19 in retreat across the U.S., Americans are ready to travel once more. Nearly 90% have trips planned, according to a May report by Destination Analysts, a market research firm. Although both gasoline and consumer prices are steep right now, almost 61% say leisure travel remains a high priority for their budgets over the next three months.

The survey utilizes data from 4,000 American travelers collected in April.

However, the question remains: Who will fly the plane? The Federal Aviation Administration limits the age of commercial pilots to 65. As pilots age out of the industry and fewer pilots leave the military, the airline industry is rushing to secure new hires quickly, reports management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

Potential talent is also balking at training costs. For instance, L3Harris Airline Academy, which runs five global academy locations with 10 affiliate airline partners, starts its prices for a commercial pilot license at almost $67,000.

Airlines have to contend with the impact of the “Great Resignation,” as millions of American workers handed in their two-week notices during the coronavirus pandemic. The transportation sector is one of several industries undergoing a labor shortage, with a high number of job openings but “relatively low quit rates,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports.

The pilot deficit isn’t relegated to just the U.S. “A global pilot shortage will emerge in certain regions no later than 2023 and most probably before,” with North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East likely to see the largest dearths, according to the Oliver Wyman analysis.

In North America specifically, the shortfall is estimated to reach over 12,000 pilots by next year, or 13% of total demand, Oliver Wyman reports.

Numbers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are even more dramatic, estimating that, from 2020 to 2030, about 14,500 openings for airline and commercial pilots are projected each year because workers are either switching jobs or leaving the labor force.

With all of these factors working against them, airlines are turning their attention to bulking up their labor forces, with Denver serving as a desirable market. Twenty-four airlines fly out of Denver International Airport, including the four largest in the U.S.: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines.

DIA’s passenger traffic for this year “is trending in a positive direction,” said spokesperson Alex Renteria. This February, the airport served around 4.6 million passengers, a slight boost from pre-pandemic numbers in February 2019.

As of now, United operates out of 70 gates, Southwest runs 25 and Frontier Airlines manages nine. All three are undergoing expansion projects to boost those numbers. Delta uses six gates, with five for American.

United, which employs around 12,000 active pilots, is “not really seeing any staffing issues on the pilot front,” said Captain Marc Champion, managing director of flight training. However, United’s regional carriers, such as CommutAir, GoJet Airlines and Air Wisconsin Airlines, are experiencing constraints, he added.

“The age-65 issue isn’t really problematic in and of itself,” Champion said in a telephone interview. Instead, “what’s really placing the heavy demand on pilots” is a combination of factors: early retirements spurred by COVID, regular retirements and expansion occurring at United and other carriers, he added.

On top of that, “we don’t have enough women and underrepresented groups in our ranks as pilots,” Champion said. “This is really, frankly, part of the constraint,” as breaking into the career field has traditionally come with barriers to accessibility.

To promote aviation careers to underrepresented groups, United bought a flight school as a subsidiary —  dubbed the United Aviate Academy — in Arizona, and plans to train 500 pilots annually. The goal is to produce “a very diverse group” of 5,000 new pilots by 2030, Champion said.

The United Flight Training Center also operates out of Denver at 7500 East 35th Avenue as the world’s largest airline training facility.

Delta hired more than 10,000 employees last year and another 4,000 this year, putting the company “largely where we need to be on staffing,” said CEO Ed Bastian on the company’s Q1 2022 earnings call in April. “We’ve been at this for the better part of the last 18 months, getting ahead of it.”

He acknowledged pilots still must complete their training, so it could take another year or two “before pilots are fully in-category and where we want them positioned.” Circumstances are also similar for flight attendants, Bastian added.

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Still, although the labor situation has “changed pretty dramatically” in recent years, “you look at our operational stats over that timeframe – we’ve led the industry consistently,” he said.

Southwest is “hyper-focused” on hiring right now, said spokesperson Dan Landson, adding that “Denver is a key focus for us as it’s our largest operation out of 121 destinations.”

He described the factor of retiring pilots as “not necessarily a major issue” for his company. Instead, Landson pointed to Southwest’s statistics that showed about 3,000 applications received for 120 first officer positions in December.

The airline is focusing on the Denver market, as it opened a $100 million maintenance facility at DIA in late March. Southwest also plans to cut the ribbon on a 16-gate expansion project at the airport this month, Landson said.

The move will let the airline operate from 40 gates – “the most at any airport we serve,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “All of these expansions mean more high-paying jobs for Denverites.”

Frontier reports that it isn’t experiencing issues related to pilots aging out, said Jennifer de la Cruz, senior director of corporate communications. “We currently have a robust pipeline of pilots and continue to experience strong response to our hiring initiatives,” she wrote in an email.

American, Spirit Airlines and Alaska Airlines didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

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