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Washington sets aside $240 million for pilot shortages as busy summer travel season starts

Congress is setting aside $240 million to fix pilot shortages, a problem that has dogged the airline industry in recent years and caused delays for travelers trying to get to their destinations.

The new money was tucked inside the recent reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. It will flow to schools and other groups focused on aviation-related education to allow them lower costs for students and provide more services.

The government expects there to be about 16,800 open pilot positions annually in the years ahead.

"This is a long-term issue," noted Sen. Raphael Warnock in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. The Georgia Democrat was a key champion of the new money.

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"We're pulling from too short, too narrow a pool of applicants," he added.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 02: Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) (C) and fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House on February 02, 2023 in Washington, DC. Members of the caucus encouraged the administration to push for national law enforcement reform in the wake of several high-profile killings of unarmed Black men, most recently the beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Raphael Warnock, center, sits with fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus during a meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office in February 2023. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)

The assistance comes as another summer travel rush gets underway, posing new challenges for airlines.

The Transportation Security Administration is projecting this summer to be the busiest summer holiday travel season ever as the sector fully rebounds from COVID.

Some short-term pilot shortages, meanwhile, may be easing in part thanks to market forces.

In a recent Yahoo Finance appearance, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned that plenty of issues could be lurking for travelers this summer but said pilot levels may turn out to be a bright spot.

"From my conversations with the sector, there's been definite improvement in the availability of pilots," he said, citing increased pay as a factor bringing "real improvement."

The nation's largest airline pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, has long maintained that there isn't a pilot shortage. It instead has tried to turn the focus to airline executives, whose policies, it says, are the root cause of recent travel issues.

A different area travelers should watch this summer, said Buttigieg, is overscheduling, when airlines book flights they don't have the staff to actually service.

The Transportation secretary said he hopes a recently finalized Biden administration rule that requires airlines to automatically issue cash refunds "changes the economics" there.

What Warnock wants to do is focus on the future and increase the number of people who can become pilots over time.

"I'm making the business case for diversity," Warnock said in this week's interview. "It's in our enlightened self-interest to find that talent and create a robust pipeline so that they can become pilots,"

The senator sits on a Senate aviation safety subcommittee and also represents Atlanta's giant Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He successfully pushed forward an amendment during the recent debate that doubled plans for $120 million in aviation workforce efforts to the final total of $240 million.

He also added provisions — both for pilots and across the aviation industry — to encourage greater diversity.

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - APRIL 24: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference at Washington National Airport April 24, 2024 in Arlington, Virginia. During the news conference, Buttigieg outlined newly announced consumer protections for airline customers that would force airlines to pay customers in cash rather than vouchers when inconvenienced by airlines due to travel delays. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at a news conference at Washington National Airport in April. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Win McNamee via Getty Images)

Warnock often stresses the economic hurdles that keep people out of the profession. Some estimate that it costs prospective pilots $100,000 before they can get their first paycheck as a commercial pilot.

He points to figures like Ezekiel Andrews, an aspiring commercial pilot who lives in Atlanta and has logged a bit over 1,000 of the 1,500 flight hours he needs before he can ferry paying passengers.

In an interview, Andrews noted that it's taken him about 17 years of stops and starts to reach this point but that he's hoping to cross the finish line this year as he works as a flight instructor.

Andrews comes from a modest background and recounted the experience of watching newer students — ones with the financial means to log their flight hours without interruption — "pass me by."

When asked about the new funds from Congress, he noted the money is not likely to help him but should make things easier for people like him in a similar situation in the future.

"That's awesome," he added.

The new money to develop future pilots comes after an extended debate among lawmakers about other things the government could do around the issue.

One controversial idea — shelved for now — would change the current rules requiring a commercial airline pilot to have completed those 1,500 hours in the air.

Another proposal also on the back burner would raise the retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67.

Sen. Warnock declined to wade into those efforts for now, saying this week, "I heard a lot of arguments on both sides of that debate, and I just decided to focus on the front end of the issue."

Ezekiel Andrews was more blunt. He hopes to be working at a regional airline by this time next year, and he questions the 1,500-hour requirement he must finish before he can enter that better-compensated field of commercial aviation.

He said he learned a lot over his first 500 hours in the sky, but "at this point, it kind of plateaued out."

"You're just punching holes in the sky for nothing," he said.

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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