Last week, I was listening to a radio program called “Marketplace” when they mentioned a “pilot shortage.” I did not expect the segment about airline pilots to resonate with me as much as it did.
The issues they were discussing were a pilot shortage, an unwillingness to pay for accomplished pilots, and the prospect of technology alleviating the “shortage.”
The issues beleaguering airline pilots seem very similar to those of pilots guiding semi-tractors on interstate highways. One big difference is the high-in-the-sky pilots do not have to contend with hundreds of four-wheelers on a trip.
With airlines pilots, Seth Kaplan from Airline Weekly said it has become more difficult to become a pilot. More hours of practice are required. When pilots slog through the requirements, what is waiting for them are low wages. He says pilot unions are saying, “Hey, just pay more and you’ll have all the pilots you need.”
Autopilot affects how many pilots were needed, he said. Also, trimming payroll makes airlines execs happy. In the case of airline pilots, two pilots must be in the cockpit. That means on long flights you might need three or four for when someone takes a break. Airlines argue that once the jet is at cruise altitude, one pilot and autopilot are all you need. They want to address the “pilot shortage” by cutting how many pilots they need.
Sound like autonomous trucks and our industry to you?
Just last month, OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer went on Fox Business program “Varney & Co.” explaining the myth of the “driver shortage.” It seems similar to the “pilot shortage.”
“Of course, what they’re really talking about is that they’re not able to retain people because pay and benefits aren’t adequate,” Spencer said on the program. “They’re plenty adequate to attract them, but they’re not adequate enough to keep them. So they continually say it’s a shortage.”
Trucking differs from other occupations. Drivers generally get paid only for the miles they drive, Spencer explained. They receive nothing for their time at docks or doing anything else. They do not receive salary. Often they are exempt from the overtime provisions and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Realistically a job where you work 80 or more hours a week away from home for about $43,000 a year, which is what the average pay is, “people will look to replace that job, not pursue it as a career,” Spencer said.
Let’s look at a report from the American Trucking Associations. It shows driver turnover rate for large truckload carriers rose to 94 percent in the first quarter of 2018. Only six drivers out of a hundred stick with the job at the mega carriers.
Here is something for comparison. Look at the restaurant industry, which is notorious for having a high churn. There was a 72.9 percent turnover rate among restaurant workers in 2016, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Autopiloting issues in the airline industry vaguely resemble the issues swirling around autonomous vehicles in the trucking industry. Often we hear that self-driving tractor-trailers won’t eliminate truck drivers.
In fact, before Uber quit development of self-driving trucks, the company told us that self-driving trucks would create more truck driving jobs. Uber predicted that driverless trucks would make the linehauls on the interstate highways between hubs and human drivers would take over for the last miles of delivering the load. It suggested by eliminating driving jobs we would be creating them. As Land Line’s John Bendel implied, that is magical thinking.
Back in May 2015, Land Line‘s Suzanne Stempinksi gave the Freightliner Inspiration self-driving semi a look.She asked how much control does the driver relenquish in a truck like this? The answer is the driver is always responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle. Drivers need to stay focused on the safe operation of the truck.
On my trip this year to Volvo Trucks headquarters in Sweden to learn about electric commercial trucks, I was asked in a bar conversation if people now used to having power steering in their vehicles would go back? Even though we were reticent at the outset, would we give up technological advances that have made driving easier and safer now that we have them?
Volvo offers “Active Driver Assist” technology that uses cameras and radar to detect metallic objects and vehicles. If the system detects a vehicle not moving, Volvo Active Driver Assist alerts the driver and engages the brakes to help the driver mitigate the potential collision. It warns the when the semi leaves its lane. It also encourages the driver to maintain a set following distance behind another vehicle.
Wondering what level of automation will become standard soon or in the distant future draws us down a rabbit hole.
It is interesting to note, though, the general similarities of pilots guiding jets through the skies and the pilots guiding semis on interstate asphalt. In both cases, what they call a “pilot shortage” or a “driver shortage” is a fabricated myth.
We often focus on details, but there are broader issues buffeting us. It seems like even more reason for us to stick together and try to modify what’s coming as best we can.
Chuck is Land Line Magazine's copy editor. He has worked at enough trade publications over the years to recognize that Land Line Magazine is indeed someplace special. Also, every time a tractor-trailer on I-70 goes by the OOIDA office and honks, he feels a bit of wanderlust. Keep on truckin.'