By members of the Iowa Public Airports Association
Air service is critically important to each of our state’s key economic drivers. Iowa’s largest employers rank commercial air service in the top three factors influencing expansion and relocation decisions.
Recently, major business relocations in other parts of the country have supported what our employers have stated. After nearly a century, Caterpillar moved its corporate headquarters from Peoria, Illinois, to Chicago, citing reliable air service as the top issue affecting the decision.
The same story played out with Archer Daniels Midland, which moved from Decatur, Illinois, to Chicago. Chiquita left Cincinnati for Charlotte and Krystal left Chattanqoga for Atlanta.
A severe lack of qualified pilots is causing a contraction of air service nationwide. Until we reverse that trend, we should expect more employers to chase reliable service.
The aerospace industry is an important part of the Iowa economy and supports thousands of jobs. The Iowa Department of Transportation-Office of Aviation identified 25 businesses which manufacture products or provide services that support the aviation and/or aerospace industries. Combined, these businesses account for more than 30,000 jobs, an annual payroll of $2.1 billion, and an annual economic output of $3.9 billion.
Without pilots, the airline industry suffers. As the industry declines, so do the thousands of jobs that support it.
By 2026, Iowa’s annual economic loss due to the pilot shortage will top $741 million and 7,000 jobs. The 10-year cumulative loss to Iowa’s economy is $3.9 billion. (Data from “A Man-Made Disaster” by Flightpath Economics.)
So, why should Iowa be concerned?
The national pilot shortage is a very real threat to air service connectivity for every community in Iowa. Iowa’s air transportation system consists of eight commercial service airports: six non-hub airports and two small hubs — Des Moines (DSM) and Cedar Rapids/Iowa City (CID).
To some extent, every airport in the state will be negatively impacted. In total, 77 percent of Iowa’s air service is on a regional airline. The majority of every airport’s departures is on regional aircraft: 63 percent of Des Moines, 84 percent of Cedar Rapids/Iowa City, and 100 percent of Waterloo, Burlington, Dubuque, Fort Dodge, Mason City and Sioux City. (Data from the Regional Airline Association.)
Of equal value in Iowa’s aviation system is our General Aviation facilities. These facilities support valuable medical flights, charter flights and ag aviation operations. All segments of Iowa’s aviation system and, therefore, our communities are feeling the negative economic consequences of the workforce shortage.
Regional airlines are the primary source for new hire pilots for mainline carriers. With Delta, United, Southwest and American in a hiring frenzy, the airlines that provide 77 percent of Iowa’s daily departures are experiencing a critical shortage of pilots.
Industry forecasts predict by 2021, the national system will be short 5,000 pilots. Without the pilots, 500 aircraft will be grounded. The pilot shortage swells to nearly 15,000 by 2026 and nearly 1,500 aircraft — currently flying regular routes — will be parked.
This is in spite of the fact that pay for regional airline pilots is higher than ever. But even as pay increases, so does the shortfall of pilots. Money will not fly the airplane.
What can be done?
There is no silver bullet to solve this problem, but rather a handful of solutions for consideration.
First, the FAA needs to approve additional pathways for pilots to accrue the hours necessary to get licensed. This needs to be done carefully, according to the best available science and technology, and with safety as the top priority.
By changing the way we think about training and time building, we can actually improve the quality of our young pilots and the safety of our skies.
Second, we need to make pilot training more accessible. Training is prohibitively expensive and not eligible for traditional student financial aid and education loans.
Iowa boasts world-class aviation institutions that would benefit from reforms. Some of these institutions are the University of Dubuque, Indian Hills Community College, Iowa Lakes Community College and Iowa Western.
Additionally, Iowa’s airport system supports numerous, often family-owned and operated, flight schools that would also benefit.
Pilot training needs to be modernized and data-driven. The system should move prospective pilots safely and efficiently through their education, not erect arbitrary barriers to entry and completion.
Those in the aviation business need to encourage more young people to consider the profession.
More importantly, the entire industry needs to come together and work with government to address the problem. We cannot afford to see this through a competitive lens, pitting airlines, airports and communities against each other.
What can Iowa do?
Working together, we can make a difference, but this is no time for “Iowa nice.” We need to talk openly and candidly about the economic impact of this growing problem. We need direct involvement from Iowa’s congressional delegation, community development leaders, state and local elected officials and airports. We need more voices.
Iowa’s economy demands a strong and robust commercial air service system. The time to act is now.
Please contact your elected representatives and urge them to act and help solve the national pilot shortage problem.
Don Mensen, Carroll Municipal Airport; Kevin Foley, Des Moines International Airport; Todd Dalsing, Dubuque Regional Airport; Robert Grierson, Dubuque Regional Airport; Martin Lenss, Eastern Iowa Airport, Cedar Rapids; Rhonda Chambers, Fort Dodge Regional Airport
Michael Tharp, Iowa City Municipal Airport; Ethan Nasalrod, Johnson Aviation, Newton; Greg Gobble, Keokuk Municipal Airport; Pamela Osgood, Mason City Municipal Airport; David Sims, Mason City Municipal Airport; Andy Maysent, McClure Engineering, Clive
Bill Kyle, Northeast Iowa Regional Airport, Charles City; Mike Collette, Sioux Gateway Airport, Sioux City; Mary Baird, Southeast Iowa Regional Airport, Burlington; Mike Roe, Washington Municipal Airport; Keith Kasperi, Waterloo Regional Airport