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PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — After taking off in a small airplane from the Punta Gorda Airport, Sydney Zhang navigates west to the Gulf Coast.
“If you look out here, there’s Boca Grande, there’s the lighthouse,” she says, pointing down to the shoreline from some 3,000 feet in the air.
Zhang is a flight instructor for AeroGuard and hopes to someday fly for a commercial airline. She’s from an aviation family and seems to have inherited a passion for flying.
“You catch the flying bug,” she explained. “You get this exhilaration. Every time I take off, it’s exhilarating.”
After a quick aerial tour of the barrier islands, Zhang lands the plane and checks back into reality. For the aviation industry, it’s a harsh one: there simply aren’t enough pilots right now to fill the need.
A shortage existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic only made the problem worse.
“With that came a lot of retirement packages for the pilots. So a lot of senior captains had taken that package and went ahead and retired,” Zhang explained. “Now that our industry is growing again, and it’s coming back to where it previously was, there’s not enough people to fill in that gap.”
This as travel numbers are starting to bounce back in a big way after a slow 2020. At Southwest Florida International Airport, more travelers passed through this October than in October of 2019, breaking the monthly record.
The staffing shortage, combined with other factors, has led to thousands of flight cancellations at airports across the country this year.
At RSW in particular, a spokesperson says — other than a few exceptions — they’ve had minimal disruption of service. 97.6% of all scheduled flights were operated in October, while so far this month 99.3% of flights were operated. It’s unclear how many of the canceled flights were related to a staffing shortage.
Delta has said it plans to hire a thousand pilots by next summer, and some airlines are reportedly offering sign-on and retention bonuses.
AeroGuard hopes to be part of the solution. They offer programs that can train students to become professional airline pilots in just two years.
“You see them saying these things and it just is an exciting thing to (hear) — ‘Hey, we’re gonna want to be pulling you up as soon as possible,’” Caleb Abel, a student with AeroGuard, told NBC2. “It’s definitely an exciting time for prospective new students and new pilots coming in.”
The real question is whether or not there will be enough new pilots to fill the surging demand. Some experts fear the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.
“Sometimes, potentially, there might not be a pilot there to fly your aircraft,” Zhang explained. “This is a career field that really, really, desperately needs help at the moment.”