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Mesa Airlines' new training program can help 'break the pipeline' of pilot shortage: CEO

The so-called “summer of travel hell” is behind us, but the ongoing national pilot shortage is still causing plenty of headwinds for the industry.

Estimates vary, but one government estimate projects a shortfall of 18,000-plus pilots each year for the next decade.

Mesa Airlines, a regional airline that flies for both United and American as well as cargo carrier DHL Express, says his company has a solution.

CEO Jonathan Ornstein told Yahoo Finance his company is rolling out a program to provide would-be pilots with interest-free loans to help them accumulate the required number of in-air training miles to fly commercially in the United States.

“What we've done is we just made an order for up to 104 smaller, light training aircraft, where we're effectively going to give people the opportunity to fly those aircraft, finance it completely. They don't pay us any money until they come to work. And the basic price, $25 an hour, is about literally 1/6 of what it would cost them to do it on their own. So it's just a terrific opportunity for new aspiring aviators to get into commercial aviation, which has now never been more lucrative,” Ornstein said.

The response from eager pilots has been overwhelmingly positive, with nearly 70 new signups in one day, Ornstein said. “There are 25,000 or more folks out there who want to fly in commercial aviation but cannot build the time quickly enough.”

Ornstein said the company plans to hire everyone that completes the program, with starting wages at $100 an hour. “These people coming into the industry now, make probably close to $100,000 a year in their first year coming to work at Mesa.”

In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required commercial pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight training time, an increase from 250 hours. Republic Airways recently challenged this rule unsuccessfully, with the FAA citing safety concerns for shorter training periods.

Ornstein says the FAA’s rules are exacerbating the pilot shortage. He pointed out the that European Union requires pilots acquire just 250 hours of training.“It’s kind of incredible that a big wide body aircraft flown by Air France or Lufthansa can fly into JFK with a pilot who has 400 hours and yet an American pilot is not deemed as capable somehow to fly a regional jet into Des Moines.”

In recent months United, American, and Delta have cited the pilot shortage as a reason for cutting regional service to smaller cities such as Iowa’s Des Moines and Dubuque, New York’s Ithaca and Islip, and Ohio’s Toledo. Ornstein predicts the trend will continue. “We’re talking about the evaporation of the regional industry if we don’t do something quickly and I think the impact on the traveling public could be very, very significant.”

The pilot shortage can be seen from coast to coast in reduced schedules and increased delays, cancellations and, of course, rising ticket prices. “The ultimate loser is the consumer,” said Ornstein. “Airline prices are up almost 35% year-over-year, service in 70% of all cities has declined and believe me, this is all due to the fact that we just don’t have enough people to fly aircraft.”

The interest-free loan program launches in Florida next month, with Arizona to follow suit. Ornstein thinks the program will give Mesa an edge in hiring qualified pilots but hopes the idea will take off within the industry and “that other carriers do the same because if we work together in this respect, we could potentially solve the shortage.”

David Briggs is an anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @davebriggstv

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