Airlines could soon be dealing with a dramatic shortage of pilots.
The main reason: thousands of pilots who will soon reach the mandated retirement age of 65. So many of them will reach that age soon because they were all hired back in the 1980s, when the airline industry expanded greatly.
"The pilot shortage is certainly something real," said James Ray. He's a U.S. Airways pilot and the spokesman for its pilots union, the US Airline Pilots Association.
He told Eyewitness News that many airlines are facing a shortage, including U.S. Airways, which has its largest hub at Charlotte Douglas. The airline handles about 90 percent of the flights there.
"This year we'll see quite a few pilots retire, but beginning next year it will be in the thousands, and at U.S. Airways, 300-400 per year," Ray said.
Besides the retirements, new rules could complicate things. Ray said later this year, the FAA will increase the minimum number of flying hours someone needs before they can become an airline pilot, making it more difficult to fill the vacancies soon.
And starting in January 2014, the airlines will be required to give pilots more rest time in between flights. That's something travelers at Charlotte Douglas on Monday said they definitely understand.
"It's a good reason because I want them to have more rest. It's fine by me as long as I can still get where I need to go," said Derek Parker.
There is another concern when it comes to filling the pilot positions. Ray said fewer people are learning to fly because it's so expensive, and when they start their careers at a regional airline, the pay isn't great.
Channel 9 asked if fewer pilots could mean fewer flights and higher ticket prices.
Ray said, "If the airlines don't do something about it now, then that could be a possibility in the future."
However, he said the airlines are working on the problem. Some, including U.S. Airways, are looking into partnering with universities that have aviation programs to encourage students to become airline pilots. He said regional airlines will most likely have to start paying more to attract pilots or they may go out of business.
Eyewitness News asked U.S. Airways about the potential shortage. An airline spokeswoman said U.S. Airways is currently hiring pilots due to additional aircraft joining its fleet. There is also a small class of new hire pilots in place at a flight training center in Phoenix, the airline's headquarters.