GRAND FORKS - Just a few years ago, the research Elizabeth Bjerke and Jim Higgins were doing was met with little interest from the airlines.

The military was the first, Higgins said, to take notice of the problem they predicted was on the horizon.

Now that the pilot shortage the researchers predicted has come to fruition, airlines are scrambling to respond.

Bjerke is the associate dean of the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences, and Higgins is the chair of the school's Department of Aviation.

Based on estimates of retirees, industry growth and attrition, the pair calculated the number of new pilots would not be enough to fill the open positions.

Airlines recently have been forced to recruit from a shrinking pool of applicants and are greatly increasing salaries and other incentives to fill their need.

These costs filter down to travelers, they said, and if the airlines can't fill the pilot positions, they will have to reduce the number of flights they can offer.

Most likely, these reductions in services first will hit regional airlines, which serve smaller airports such as Grand Forks.

"Regional airlines are parking airplanes already because they don't have the pilots," Bjerke said.

Bjerke and Higgins estimate more than 3,000 new pilots per year are needed to fill the demand, and that will increase to nearly 5,000 pilots per year over the next decade. That translates to a cumulative 50,000 new pilots needed by 2026.

Now that the impacts are being seen firsthand, Bjerke and Higgins are presenting their research to major carriers, such as Delta, FedEx and United.

"Now, they're listening," Bjerke said.

The airlines are partnering with the school for a variety of programs to pique the interest of a new generation of pilots.

And it's starting to draw the students. Bjerke said applicants to the commercial aviation program have increased 59 percent since fall of 2015.

Opportunities

While the shortage has negative impacts for the industry and its customers, it is producing a huge opportunity for students entering the field.

"I've never seen this much opportunity in the 20 years of my career," Bjerke said.

There was a time when the military was the primary route to being a pilot - a misconception Higgins said people still have today - but that has changed a lot.

Higgins said a few years ago the starting salary for a regional pilot was about $22,000.

Now it's closer to $65,000, and the advancement is much faster. Higgins said, in just a few years, a new pilot can be bringing in between $80,000 and $95,000 a year.

Air Wisconsin recently enhanced its recruitment and retention bonuses.

The airline is offering first officer pilots, which are known in layman's terms as the co-pilot, a starting pay of $35 per hour and $33,000 in sign-on bonuses.

A company statement on the new incentives said a new first officer easily will make up to $240,000 over three years with the airline.

"We expect to hire over 400 pilots in the next two years, and this program secures our ability to recruit and retain experienced pilots capable of quickly progressing from first officer to captain," said Bob Frisch, Air Wisconsin's chief operating officer.

Endeavor Air also is offering more competitive salaries than was the industry average a few years ago.

"We're fortunate in that we can offer an industry leading first-year pay rate of more than $60,000 in combined compensation, rapid career progression as pilots build their total time, and a defined pathway to our mainline partner, Delta Air Lines," said Nancy Shane, director of pilot sourcing and industry outreach for Endeavor.

Right mindset

Swayne Martin is a student in the UND aerospace program.

He produces online aviation videos and is an editor at Boldmethod Pilot Training, an online training business.

"It couldn't be better right now," Martin said.

He said airlines also need more mechanics and dispatchers.

While the opportunities are great, Martin said a career in aviation isn't for everyone. Flight school is a challenging program, he warned.

While typically there's the 15 credit-hour course, getting the flight time is another eight to 10 hours per week on top of the normal course workload.

"They have to have the right mindset going into it," he said.

The passion for flight seems to be the driving force for a lot of students.

Alison Hunt, a senior in the UND aerospace program, said aviation is often all they talk about with each other outside of class.

"We're all aviation nerds," she said.

Stephen Lavick, another senior in the program, said the flight hours are not really work. He loves it so much, it's what he wants to do after he's done with class for the day.

That passion must be lifelong, as well. After the tough training comes the tough career.

Martin said it can be decades before a pilot is captaining big jets for a major carrier.

New pilots start out with regional airlines as a co-pilot. It's then at least a few years before they're captaining the smaller regional aircraft, and years more before they get the opportunity to co-pilot for a major carrier and move up to captain from there.

And the nature of the job means long periods of time away from home.

Martin said the industry is very cyclical, too. It's good now, but it won't be like this forever.

In the past 14 years, Martin said, pilots faced radical changes brought on by the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a recession and other changes that have led to furloughs and layoffs for some pilots.

The career can pay off for those who stick with it.

According to Brown Aviation Lease, a company that provides fleet management and other services for pilot training, the return on investment for flight school is higher than that of doctors, lawyers and teachers.

For every dollar spent on training, a pilot will earn $33 in salary. This is compared with $30 for lawyers, $23 for teachers and $19 for doctors.

The figures take into account not only the cost of schooling but also career earning years. Doctors make a lot more money than any of the four careers, but their training costs a lot more and takes a lot longer, leaving them with fewer years to earn those high salaries.

Pilot boom

While the students of the UND aviation program have a strong enthusiasm for the field, the program also contains a liberal arts section.

Martin said it's one of benefits of the UND program. He has a normal college experience, while getting his aviation credentials.

Bjerke said this is also something attractive to airline employers and goes a long way to explain why so many UND aerospace alumni are holding top positions at major carriers.

Higgins said, when you're piloting an aircraft with possibly hundreds of passengers, it's helpful to have a more worldly view, which the program provides.

"The airlines want people who are well-rounded," Higgins said.

This quality of the program also attracts pilots from around the world. Roughly half of the students in the program are international students.

While this says a lot about the school's reputation, it means a large chunk of the graduates will not satisfy the demand for pilots, since many international students will fly for airlines in their own country.

Bjerke said despite the growing interest in aviation careers, the shortage is likely to be lasting, as will the opportunities for aviation careers.

Higgins said the shortage could have some far-reaching consequences for the economy if it's not solved. The airline industry is 10 percent of the national gross domestic product, he said.

And just about every industry to one degree or another depends on air travel to move people and materials. So reduced flight services and increased costs filter down to businesses and consumers across many industries.

"I believe it's going to get worse before it gets better," Higgins said.