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U.S. airlines, officials grapple with looming pilot shortfall

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By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Airlines, government agencies and academic institutions must work together to address a potential future shortfall of commercial and military pilots and other aviation employees in the coming years, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

“We have a diminishing supply of qualified pilots, mechanics, and technicians,” acting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Dan Elwell said at its forum on the aviation workforce on Thursday at National Airport.

“There needs to be a common understanding of the gravity and urgency of this situation,” he added.

Elwell said the number of U.S. private pilots with active certificates decreased by 27 percent and the number of commercial pilots fell by 21 percent over the last decade.

Boeing Co <BA.N> projects North America will need 127,000 new pilots by 2037 and has forecast a need for 754,000 new aircraft technicians over the next two decades.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao noted that worldwide, air passengers are expected to nearly double from 4 billion in 2017 to 7.8 billion by 2036.

“The bottom line is that the available pool of pilots is shrinking,” Chao said on Thursday. “It is incumbent on all of us to find solutions.”

Congress must reauthorize the FAA by Sept. 30 or again temporarily extend its authority.

One contentious issue has been training requirements for pilots, and whether certain simulated training hours can be counted to help speed training, which is opposed by some safety advocates.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at the forum that beyond industry demand for pilots, the military also needs more pilots. She said the Air Force was 2,000 pilots short of staffing needs, including 1,300 fighter pilots.

“We have to be in it together because if we continue to try to cannibalize off each other we will never solve the core problem, which is a national shortage of aviation professionals,” Wilson said.

There are other issues for pilot training. “College aviation programs don’t have enough instructors to teach new students, because they’re taking jobs with the airlines as soon as they log enough time (in the air),” Elwell said.

United Airlines <UAL.N> Chief Executive Oscar Munoz told reporters at a separate forum on Wednesday that the government could help fund pilot training.

But passengers should not be panicked. “There are plenty of pilots today. There will be plenty of pilots in the future, but we have to be careful about the pipeline down the line,” Munoz said.

Pilot jobs are not threatened by automation, officials said.

American Airlines Group Inc <AAL.O> Chief Executive Doug Parker downplayed the idea of pilotless airplanes in the next 20 years.

Autonomous planes are “certainly not anything American is working on or trying to make happen,” Parker said on Wednesday.

But an American Airlines President Robert Isom said on Thursday that 75 percent of its pilots will retire over the next 15 years, including 8,000 over the next decade. U.S. airline pilots are required by law to retire by the age of 65.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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