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Just two months ago, airlines were warning about furloughing thousands of pilots. Now they're putting up help-wanted signs. As NPR's David Schaper reports, that's because air travel seems to be recovering more quickly than expected.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's been a long, strange and difficult year for commercial airline pilots like American's Dennis Tajer.
DENNIS TAJER: As we look at the - what appears to be the end of this long, dark tunnel, I've been reflecting on what it was like a year ago at this time.
SCHAPER: He was walking through nearly vacant airports and flying almost empty planes a year ago this week, when the number of people flying dropped below 100,000 a day, a level not seen since the dawn of commercial aviation.
TAJER: We certainly lost pilots who were in the last quarter of their career.
SCHAPER: Three doses of federal payroll support has most airline pilots working, but a few thousand took early retirement offers. In offering those packages, airlines expected they'd have plenty of time to restock their pilot ranks, as they initially forecast a long, slow recovery in air travel. But they may have miscalculated.
GEOFF MURRAY: The recovery, at least domestically, is taking place, I think, much more rapidly than anybody anticipated.
SCHAPER: Geoff Murray is a partner and aviation industry consultant for management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
MURRAY: I mean, flights are full. And, you know, people are standing by for flights because they can't buy a ticket and that kind of thing. And that was unheard of just six or eight weeks ago.
SCHAPER: United says it will hire 300 new pilots this year. Spirit and Frontier are hiring, too. And Murray says other airlines will likely follow suit.
MURRAY: I don't think there's any doubt at all that we are - you know, in the next, you know, even six to certainly 12 months, I think we're going to see every single major U.S. airline out looking for pilots.
SCHAPER: And Murray says the airlines were already facing a daunting long-term pilot shortage.
MURRAY: There's a handful of airlines that we're working with now that in five years are looking at 40% of their pilot workforce retiring - in just the next five years.
SCHAPER: Forty percent - that's a huge number. And with the traditional military pipeline producing only a small fraction of the number of pilots it used to, airlines are creating their own pilot pipelines. Many have scholarship and training programs, but United now has its own flight school - the Aviate Pilot Academy in Phoenix, where it plans to train 5,000 new pilots over the next decade. And the airline wants half of those trainees to be women and people of color - pilots like First Officer Carole Hopson, who says she first dreamed about flying planes when she was just four years old.
CAROLE HOPSON: I used to lie in the grass in my grandmother's backyard. It was on the approach path to Philadelphia International Airport. And I would lie in the grass and look at the airplanes overhead.
SCHAPER: But facing $100,000 or more for flight school, Hopson instead followed a career path from journalism to the NFL to being a retail executive before she finally started flying in her mid-30s.
HOPSON: My path was circuitous. I don't want the next generation of people who look like me to wait that long to get started.
SCHAPER: United's flight academy will provide scholarships and loan assistance to qualified applicants, as well as a guaranteed job with one of its regional carriers. While those entry-level jobs flying commercial jets are relatively low-paying, it puts the pilots on track to earn upwards of $200,000 a year flying for the major carriers.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "FLYING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.