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Pilot shortage has long-range implications

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Flight instructor Barbara George and student pilot Chris Hoffman prepare for takeoff at the Carlisle Airport. George owns Cumberland Valley Aviation, a business based at the Cumberland County airport in South Middleton Township.
Flight instructor Barbara George and student pilot Chris Hoffman prepare for takeoff at the Carlisle Airport. George owns Cumberland Valley Aviation, a business based at the Cumberland County airport in South Middleton Township. - (Photo / )

While the pilot shortage hasn't yet been felt at Lancaster Airport, David Eberly knows it will eventually have an impact locally.

Lancaster officials are trying to get out in front of the issue with programming aimed at area youth. Every so often, the airport director and his staff will visit a local school or host a public session in which aviation is the topic.

"We really tried to broaden it out and make it something that high school students could really look at and get excited about a potential career in aviation," Eberly said. "We've been sort of taking our show on the road."

Recent data from the Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has renewed concerns over a pilot shortage. The number of licensed pilots in the U.S. has declined from about 827,000 in 1980 to 617,000 today, the association reports.

Carl Adkins has noticed the trend. He runs Avflight out of Harrisburg International Airport. The company provides related flight services such as rental cars, pilot rooms, conference space and fueling for the planes.

"What I'm seeing is that we just don't have the kids getting involved in aviation like we need," Adkins said. "From the flight schools that I'm talking to, there's just not a lot going on with the young kids."

The reasons are well known: Pilots are not paid well, and federal regulations are lengthy in the post-9/11 world of flying.

According to the Air Line Pilots Association, starting pilot salaries at top U.S. regional carriers average $22,400 a year. Smaller carriers pay as little as $15,000 a year.

Even recreational flyers are turned away by the costs, said Bryan Gembusia, a Cumberland County recreational pilot. He said hangar rental and maintenance are costly items, not to mention fuel expenses.

"I sold my last airplane after (airplane fuel) got up over $3 a gallon," he said. "Now it's up to $7 a gallon. The average plane burns 7 to 10 gallons an hour. You calculate that out and it gets pretty costly."

Fewer recreational pilots means the pool for professional pilots gets smaller, Gembusia said.

"I would think what will happen is the pilot population overall will get older," he added. "You just aren't going to get the younger generation into it. The pool will get thinner and older."

Various officials connected with Central Pennsylvania airports report no difficulties with business air travel to date. Eberly said business travel accounts for about 40 percent of the takeoffs/landings at Lancaster Airport.

The advantages are obvious, he added. Driving to Pittsburgh, for example, can easily turn into a two-day business trip, with costly tolls, gas and hotel rooms. By flying out of Lancaster Airport, Eberly said, a business traveler can be in the city by 9 a.m. for a 10 a.m. meeting, and back home by 2 p.m.

"That's what business travel is all about," he said. "Today, our time is so valuable and it's becoming more and more valuable. ... You can be so much more productive."

Business planes account for about 50 percent of all aircraft housed at Lancaster Airport, Eberly said, a figure that has held steady.

"Businesses come and go all the time," he said.

Jimmy Kingsborough, a co-owner of Carlisle Airport, said the facility is used significantly by area businesses. A 2011 Carlisle Airport Study Group Task Force report identified more than 20 area businesses and agencies that use the airport to conduct business.

Carlisle Events was on the list. Mike Garland, spokesman for the company, said Carlisle Events uses both Carlisle Airport and Harrisburg International Airport.

The car show promotion company books commercial flights out of HIA for trips to Florida, where it holds two car shows in Zephyrhills. It uses Carlisle Airport and local pilots for aerial flyovers of its Carlisle Fairgrounds, Garland said, as well as some short flights bringing customers and celebrities to town.

If the ability to fly to and from either airport were threatened, "it would throw a major wrench into our business," he added.

In a recent interview, Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said part of the answer to the pilot shortage is for regional airlines to pay better. Market forces will require them to do so, area officials agree.

"I think that's going to change," Eberly said. "I think it's going to have to change."

Lancaster Airport hosts open house

Lancaster Airport will host a public open house at 7 p.m. March 13 to discuss careers in aviation. The event will be at the airport terminal.

For more info, visit www.lancasterairport.com.

Fast fact

From 1980 to today, data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C., show that production of single-engine planes plunged from 14,000 per year to fewer than 700.

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