United Airlines is trying to recruit pilots early in their training as the second-biggest U.S. carrier faces an impending shortage as half of its aviators approach retirement.
The airline on Thursday said it would offer conditional job offers to candidates who apply to a special program as they build experience during their training and early-career experience at small airlines.
Close to half of United's roughly 12,500 pilots will retire over the next 10 years, the airline estimates, and it expects to need to hire 10,000 over that period to keep pace with growth. Boeing has estimates that airlines will need 645,000 pilots from 2019 through 2038, with 212,000 in North America alone.
Airlines around the world are fretting about who will fly their planes in the future and are ramping up recruiting efforts. Delta Air Lines last year launched a program that invited its non-pilot employees to take unpaid leave to go to flight school and conditional job offers for college students as ranks of pilots thin due to the federally-mandated retirement age of 65.
Cost is a major hurdle to becoming a pilot and training costs can top $80,000. Strict laws in the United States require that pilots have 1,500 hours of flight time to work at a commercial airline, but there are exceptions for some students and military.
United is considering other initiatives such as loan forgiveness or guarantees, said Bryan Quigley, United's senior vice president of flight operations.
"One of the big barriers to get into the profession is the cost of getting their certification," he said. Regional carriers that serve airlines' shorter routes have had to increase bonuses to new pilots to entice applicants.
Quigley said he has noticed a "very minor impact" about staffing issues preventing some regional airlines from being able to fly as much as they could, adding that they're boosting the program so the problem doesn't worsen.
Pilots could move over to United's mainline operation after a minimum of 24 months and 2,000 hours at a regional, United said.