With major airlines blaming pilot shortages for canceled services, foreign pilots see an opportunity to pick up their stalled careers in the US.
United Airlines, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue have reported pilot shortages impacting their operations. With many US pilots not returning from furlough or leaving the industry during the pandemic, there are not enough to meet demand.
Regional carriers are being hit especially hard, with mainline airlines poaching staff, luring them with higher salaries and attractive sign-on bonuses.
In March, regional carrier SkyWest Airlines, which operates flights for Delta Air Lines, American, and United, gave notice it was dropping 29 government-subsidized routes because of pilot shortages.
The US Department of Transport (DOT) stepped in and issued an order blocking SkyWest from ending the flights until a replacement airline was in place.
Regional carriers are struggling to retain pilots as mainline carriers seek new recruits. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.
Immigration lawyers swamped with foreign pilot inquiries
Reuters reported today that US immigration lawyers are dealing with a surge in inquiries and visa applications from pilots based in countries where traffic is still recovering from pandemic lows.
In the US, Ana Barbara Schaffert, an attorney at AG Immigration Group, said that a widening supply-demand gap had created an unprecedented opportunity for experienced foreign pilots. She added:
“While the US has a major shortage, in the rest of the world pilots are out of jobs.”
According to the Reuters report, in recent months Schaffert has received more than 8,000 requests for consultations and is screening more than 2,000 resumes from pilots seeking to immigrate to the United States. This is nearly double the volume she was receiving pre-pandemic.
Other sources say they are receiving inquiries from Australia, Canada, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Russian pilots with nowhere to go have also inquired about opportunities in the US.
The idea of a pilot shortage is news to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest pilot union with more than 61,000 members.
After a lively discussion in a December 2021 US Senate Commerce Committee hearing, the ALPA said:
“There are more than enough airline pilots today, and efforts to raise supply problems are meant to roll back the training requirements that have resulted in an unprecedented period of domestic airline safety.”
It also said: “Year over year, the US is producing more pilots than can be hired by the airlines, with more than 1.5 certificated pilots relative to demand.”
Contrast that with the United Airlines statement that says the US can produce a maximum of 7,000 pilots per year, but the carriers need 13,000 this year and even more next year.
The reality is that some US airlines are currently recruiting foreign pilots because they can’t find what they need at home.
Breeze Airways will be one of the largest operators of the A220 and is looking overseas to find new pilots. Photo: Breeze
Australia is fertile ground for pilot-hunting
Breeze Airways, SkyWest Airlines, and CommutAir have been actively recruiting pilots in Australia, many of whom were furloughed during the extended lockdowns experienced there. The three dominant airlines, Qantas Airways, Jetstar, and Virgin Australia, had most of their fleet grounded for close to two years, and thousands of pilots had nothing to fly.
This made Australia a fertile ground for recruitment, as did the US airlines’ $50,000 sign-on bonuses offered to captains.
Australian pilots also benefit from access to a ‘specialty occupations’ US visa, which is relatively simple to obtain and can be renewed for unlimited two-year periods. Australian pilot certification is recognized in the US, and licenses can be converted.
Is hiring foreign pilots an acceptable way for US airlines to provide the volume of flights that the public wants? Or is it a step too far?
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