The declining pool has led to canceled flights and lower requirements for hiring.
The aviation industry is on the rebound financially, but a looming pilot shortage could create some unexpected turbulence.
For a view of what this could mean for passengers, one need only look to Northwest Airlines.
Since last Friday, the Minneapolis-based carrier has canceled hundreds of flights because it hasn't had enough pilots in reserve to fly all of the planes it had scheduled and handle all of the overtime created by summer weather delays.
The result: Thousands of passengers like Maria Montoya, who spent seven hours trying to get from Detroit to New York, were delayed, rerouted, and frustrated.
Aviation experts say that Northwest's cancellations are unique, a product of the carrier's overzealous cost-cutting to lift itself out of bankruptcy, which it did this past May. But as the industry continues to recover, they warn, demand for new pilots could soon outstrip the supply. And unless airlines start aggressively recruiting and training new pilots now, such problems could affect the entire industry. Key reasons for the potential shortfall: Flying has lost much of its glamour, and not enough young people want to become pilots. Smaller and regional carriers are already having trouble hiring new pilots and have lowered their standards, requiring fewer hours of flying experience.
"It's really a pretty big problem, and we're just awakening to it," says Kit Darby, president of AIR Inc., a job resource center for pilots in Atlanta. "It takes time to create really experienced pilots. We're going to have a shortage for a while."
Since 2002, four major airlines have gone bankrupt and thousands of pilots have been furloughed. Many of those who remained saw their wages cut by as much as 40 and 50 percent. Many also lost their pensions and had to give up hard-won work conditions. For an 18-year-old looking for a career, the blue uniform with its gold captain's stripes may not have seemed as appealing as before.