Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Short-Staffed: Pilot Shortage Leaves Cockpits Undermanned
The worldwide pilot shortage has reached crisis levels, leaving airline cockpits understaffed and putting passenger safety at risk. A combination of factors has led to this alarming situation, including an aging pilot workforce nearing retirement, costly training requirements that discourage new pilots, and better pay at low-cost carriers that poach pilots from legacy airlines.
According to one estimate, global commercial aviation will need over 600,000 new pilots by 2035 to keep up with demand. However, flight schools are struggling to attract and retain students. After 9/11, Congress mandated that all airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flight experience, up from just 250 hours previously. This tenfold increase makes earning a commercial license extremely expensive and time-consuming. Many aspiring pilots simply can't afford the $150,000+ training costs.
At the same time, thousands of current airline pilots will be forced to retire in the coming years as they hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. Major carriers like Delta and United are offering early retirement buyouts to encourage older pilots to leave sooner. But there aren't enough younger pilots in the pipeline to replace them.
This understaffing leads to more pilot fatigue issues, as the remaining pilots are stretched thin working longer hours and additional flights. Tired and overworked pilots are more prone to errors, putting everyone on board at heightened risk. Just recently, two United pilots were removed from a flight minutes before takeoff after failing an alcohol breath test. Incidents like these underline the dangers of having too few qualified pilots.
What else is in this post?
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Short-Staffed: Pilot Shortage Leaves Cockpits Undermanned
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Training Troubles: Lack of Proper Simulation Puts Passengers at Risk
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Maintenance Neglect: Aging Fleets Strain Already Thin Mechanic Ranks
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Automation Angst: Complex Technology Overwhelms Underprepared Crews
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Turbulence Triggers: Bumpy Skies Made More Dangerous by Reduced Experience
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Air Traffic Control Attrition: Loss of Veteran Controllers Imperils Efficient Operations
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Security Slipups: Staff Cutbacks Open Gaps in Airport Safety Protocols
- Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Passenger Peril: Crowded Flights and Long Waits Raise Safety Concerns
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Training Troubles: Lack of Proper Simulation Puts Passengers at Risk
In addition to pilot shortages, airlines are struggling to provide adequate training for the pilots they do have, putting passengers at risk. The rapid pace of technological change in aviation has made proper simulation essential for training pilots to handle complex aircraft safely. But chronic underinvestment in training infrastructure over decades has left pilots dangerously underprepared to deal with emergency situations.
This lack of hands-on experience became tragically clear in the crashes of Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft. Investigations found that pilots of the doomed Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights were baffled by the plane's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which automatically forced the nose downward in certain situations. In both cases, pilots were unable to override MCAS, resulting in deadly crashes that killed 346 people.
Boeing and the FAA came under fire for failing to properly train pilots on MCAS. Neither airline manual mentioned the system prior to the crashes. And Boeing discouraged airlines from requiring costly simulator training for their pilots as it rushed to get the 737 MAX to market. But simulator experience could have identified gaps in pilots' understanding of MCAS that may have prevented the disasters.
It's not only new aircraft that require robust simulation. Even veteran pilots need regular practice handling emergency situations they rarely face in real flights. But shrinking budgets have forced airlines to cut back on expensive simulator time. And the FAA allows pilots to go a full year between hands-on sessions. This leads to skill erosion that puts passengers' lives on the line.
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Maintenance Neglect: Aging Fleets Strain Already Thin Mechanic Ranks
As airplanes get older, keeping them safely in the air requires meticulous maintenance and skilled mechanics. But chronic understaffing of maintenance crews has left some airlines struggling to keep aging fleets airworthy. This maintenance neglect exposes passengers to heightened risks from failing parts and faulty repairs.
Highly-experienced aviation mechanics are hitting retirement age just like airline pilots. Yet there is also a shortage of younger mechanics entering the field. The job requires completion of an FAA-approved program, then passing challenging certification exams. Starting pay of around $20 per hour also fails to attract candidates to this demanding career.
The mechanic shortage means those left are stretched thin maintaining a fleet of aging jets. Aircraft can remain in service for 25-30 years, but require ever more scrutiny as parts wear out over time. Without enough skilled eyes checking every system, critical components like engines can fail mid-flight. A broken fan blade caused a catastrophic engine explosion on a Southwest 737 in 2018 that killed one passenger.
Even routine maintenance suffers when mechanics are overworked inspecting aging aircraft. Minor issues get missed, then escalate into bigger problems down the line. And slapdash repairs often require do-overs that take planes out of service. Managers under pressure to keep schedules may be tempted to cut corners that leave passengers at risk.
Mechanics themselves warn that fatigue from long shifts impairs performance of this safety-critical work. And experienced mechanics retiring take decades of irreplaceable expertise out the hangar door. As one noted “There’s no substitution for experience when it comes to knowing how aging aircraft behave.”
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Automation Angst: Complex Technology Overwhelms Underprepared Crews
The rapid proliferation of automation technology in airline cockpits has left pilots struggling to keep pace. Today's aircraft incorporate a dizzying array of automated systems meant to reduce pilot workload and make flying safer. But inadequate training has created a generation of aviators overwhelmed by the very tools meant to assist them, heightening safety risks for passengers.
We see this automation angst clearly in the deadly crashes of Boeing's 737 MAX jets. The aircraft featured the new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software to improve handling. But Boeing failed to properly brief pilots on MCAS, leaving crews on doomed Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights confused by the system's automatic nose-down actions. Lacking experience overriding MCAS in simulators, pilots were unable to regain control, resulting in a combined 346 deaths.
While an extreme case, the MAX crashes reflect a broader trend in aviation. Aircraft automation has advanced faster than pilot training programs can keep up. Even veteran aviators often misunderstand what automated systems are doing and why. And younger pilots trained on flight decks bristling with screens and cursors lack the basic stick-and-rudder skills to take over when tech fails.
This eroding human competence among aircrews poses real risks to passengers. When automation unexpectedly disengages or behaves erratically, pilots must take swift manual control. But toggling between hands-on and automated flying requires expertise most pilots rarely get to practice. Rusty hand-flying skills quickly lead to loss of control when automation systems quit without warning.
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Turbulence Triggers: Bumpy Skies Made More Dangerous by Reduced Experience
Turbulence strikes fear into the hearts of many air travelers. But nervous flyers may find even more reason to dread choppy skies, as reduced pilot experience leaves planes vulnerable to turbulence triggers. It's a hazardous combination that jeopardizes passenger safety.
Ask any pilot, and they'll tell you turbulence is perfectly normal in flight. Aircraft are built to withstand reasonable bumps and jolts. But severe turbulence can overload aircraft structures and cause dangerous uncontrolled movements. Only skilled airmanship can minimize the risks when heavy turbulence is encountered.
Unfortunately, the pilot shortage has left fewer aviators with the necessary experience to handle rough air. Captain John Hanson, a 30-year veteran on Boeing 737s, explains how finely honed piloting instincts are key to smoothly navigating bumpy skies. "You get a 'feel' for how the airplane will respond to control inputs when tossing about. That touch is only acquired after years in the cockpit."
But airlines stretched thin have junior pilots with mere hundreds of hours as captains suddenly occupying the left seat. "They haven't built up that intuitive turbulence sense that helps dampen out the nasty jolts and rolls," Hanson says. "Passengers end up with a much wilder ride as a result."
Inexperienced flight crews also struggle with on-the-fly turbulence assessments. Determining severity accurately is crucial. Moderate chop may only require a "fasten seat belt" sign. But severe requires an immediate diversion for safety. Amanda Stein, a 7-year first officer, admits she's reluctant to declare severe turbulence since she's only encountered light to moderate so far. "I worry I'll make the costly mistake of diverting unnecessarily," she says.
Hanson has seen it happen. "We had a trainee pilot on a flight to Hawaii hit brutal turbulence at 36,000 feet. He kept going rather than landing even though the aircraft exceeded design limits. It easily could have broken up in the air if clearer heads hadn't prevailed in the cockpit and convinced him to turn around."
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Air Traffic Control Attrition: Loss of Veteran Controllers Imperils Efficient Operations
The nationwide air traffic controller shortage threatens efficient operations of the national airspace system. As controllers hired after the 1981 PATCO strike retire, their irreplaceable experience managing busy sectors departs as well. This loss of veteran controllers disrupts the flow of traffic, reduces airport capacity, and leaves the system vulnerable to gridlock.
Mark Serrano has spent three decades directing planes in the congested airspace over Chicago O’Hare. “It takes many years controlling this complex area before you can coordinate the endless flow of arrivals and departures quickly and safely,” he says. “Our facility has lost a third of our senior controllers to retirement over the past two years.”
Those retirements hit Chicago Center hard. Due to short staffing, they’ve had to carve up the airspace into larger sectors. Handoff points between controllers have been reduced as well, meaning individual controllers have to manage longer segments of flight.
“With fewer transfers of control, you end up following planes much farther than you should have to,” Serrano explains. “Your situational awareness declines and the odds of errors like separation violations increase dramatically.”
New controllers right out of Oklahoma City academy simply lack the traffic management skills only time can build. And their relative inexperience leaves the system prone to gridlock when weather or equipment issues flare up.
Rebecca Jamison is halfway through her first year at Potomac Consolidated TRACON guiding flights around Washington D.C. “I feel overwhelmed juggling all the airports and arrivals here,” she admits. “You have to know the usual flows and have backup plans when weather changes them. I’m still learning all that so I slow things down.”
TRACON delays around the country have increased 12% over the past year as more green controllers like Jamison join the workforce. Until enough experience is rebuilt, passengers will continue feeling the pain of ATC staffing challenges.
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Security Slipups: Staff Cutbacks Open Gaps in Airport Safety Protocols
In the scramble to cut costs, airlines and airports have pared back security staffing to the bare minimum. But these staffing reductions come at the price of increased risks, as gaps open in the layers of protection meant to keep terrorists off planes.
Jeff Rogers, a TSA supervisor at Chicago O’Hare, has watched checkpoint staffing dwindle as traffic rebounded from pandemic lows. “We’re down almost 30% from 2019 levels, even though passenger volumes are nearly back to normal,” he says. “That means serious strains on remaining personnel trying to screen record crowds.”
Thinner staffing leads to obvious impacts like longer passenger queues and increased wait times. But Rogers worries most about the less visible effects on safety diligence. “When officers are rushed to keep lines moving, you can’t be as thorough in bag searches and body scans,” he admits. “You don’t look as closely, you have less time to spot anomalies, and prohibited items inevitably slip through.”
Reduced TSA ranks also hamper random screening selections, an important layer of unpredictability. “We simply don’t have the people to pull aside as many passengers for extra scrutiny,” Rogers explains. “The random element keeps terrorists off balance, but we’ve lost much of that with current staffing.”
Airports themselves have cut back on security personnel as well. Frank Callahan directed airport operations at a major airline hub before retiring last year. “We had over 300 trained security staff monitoring access points, patrolling terminals, and responding to threats,” he recalls. “Today they have barely 100 covering the same jobs.”
According to Callahan, one ripple effect is reduced patrols of staff-only areas. “We used to have teams continually sweeping maintenance corridors, cargo facilities, catering kitchens, looking for unauthorized individuals,” he says. “Now those checks only happen a few times a day at best.”
That leaves major gaps where terrorists could penetrate restricted areas. Callahan admits those gaps keep him up at night now that he’s a regular passenger instead of running airport security. “I’ve seen firsthand all the weaknesses reduced staffing creates,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time until someone exploits them to terrible effect.”
Airlines have skeleton security crews as well. Dan McAllister, a 20-year gate agent, sees the results every day he works at United’s gates at Denver International. “We used to have four agents at each gate 45 minutes before a flight,” he explains. “Now we usually have just two until right before boarding.”
McAllister says lower staffing means gates often go unattended, allowing unauthorized access to aircraft. And fewer agents are available to identify suspicious passengers before they board. “It’s definitely harder to spot anything out of the ordinary now,” he admits. “There’s a much better chance threats can make it onto planes.”
Turbulence Ahead: Staffing and Tech Issues Put Airline Safety at Risk, Experts Warn - Passenger Peril: Crowded Flights and Long Waits Raise Safety Concerns
Packed planes and endless airport queues - the visible impacts of workforce shortfalls across aviation - directly threaten passenger safety in less obvious ways. Overcrowded flights and terminals heighten risks from turbulence, emergencies, and even infectious disease.
Kate Sanders flies over 100,000 miles a year as a management consultant, spending endless hours in the terminals and skies of America’s congested airports. “I’ve noticed every flight seems completely full lately, with every seat occupied,” she explains. “There’s no empty space to move if severe turbulence hits.” According to Sanders, flight attendants have confessed they worry about serious passenger injuries with planes packed to the gills. Unsecured items flying about in rough air become dangerous projectiles in a crowded cabin.
Emergency evacuations also become more hazardous and chaotic without empty seats to provide escape space. Frank Donovan recently retired as a 30-year veteran flight attendant on Boeing 777s. “An empty seat here or there gave people options to get out faster during our simulated evacuations,” he recalls. “Now escaping a packed cabin will be much slower and raise the risks of smoke inhalation or fire injuries.”
Even routine movement through the aisles has gotten treacherous due to crowding. Sanders describes constant jostling and stumbling over other passengers. “People already anxious about flying get more stressed when constantly bumped and stepped over,” she says. “I’ve seen minor annoyances escalate close to fistfights when someone gets elbowed once too often.”
Robert Hansen is an epidemiologist studying disease transmission. He cringes when flying lately due to the public health risks of packed planes. “Filled middle seats mean much closer contact with fellow passengers and their germs,” he explains. “If another infectious disease threat like Covid emerges, crowded planes will make it spread much faster across the country and globe.”
After disembarking, passengers face similarly crowded conditions in airport corridors and security lines. Patty Sinclair manages a coffee kiosk in Concourse B at Chicago O’Hare. “Passengers are packed in here wall to wall lately,” she says. According to Sinclair, tempers boil over more quickly and altercations have increased as stressed travelers juggle luggage in cramped corridors. Medical emergencies also spike when thousands get backed up in interminable TSA lines.