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Workers load baggage onto an airplane at the Waterloo Regional Airport.

Air service is vital to our state’s key economic drivers. Iowa’s largest employers rank air service in the top three factors influencing expansion and relocation decisions.

Recently, major business relocations in other parts of the country have supported what our employers have stated: After nearly a century, Caterpillar moved its corporate headquarters from Peoria, Ill., to Chicago, citing reliable air service as the top issue affecting the decision. A severe lack of qualified pilots is causing a contraction of air service nationwide. Until we reverse that trend, expect more employers to chase reliable service.

The aerospace industry is an important part of Iowa’s economy. The Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation identified 25 businesses that manufacture products or provide services that support the aerospace industry. Combined, these businesses account for 30,000 jobs, an annual payroll of $2.1 billion and an annual economic output of $3.9 billion. Without pilots, the industry suffers. As the industry declines, so do the thousands of jobs that support it.

By 2026, Iowa’s annual economic loss due to the pilot shortage will top $741 million and 7,000 jobs. The 10-year cumulative loss to Iowa, $3.9 billion. (Data from “A Man-Made Disaster” by Flightpath Economics.)

Why should Iowa be concerned? The national pilot shortage is a threat to air service connectivity for every community in Iowa. Iowa’s air transportation system consists of eight commercial service airports: six non-hub airports and two small hubs.

Every airport in Iowa will be negatively impacted. In total, 77 percent of Iowa’s air service is on a regional airline. The majority of every airport’s departures is on regional aircraft: 63 percent of Des Moines, 84 percent of Cedar Rapids/Iowa City, and 100 percent of Waterloo, Burlington, Dubuque, Fort Dodge, Mason City and Sioux City. (Data from the Regional Airline Association.)

Of equal value is our general aviation facilities. These facilities support medical flights, charter flights, and ag aviation operations. All segments of Iowa’s aviation system are feeling the negative consequences of the workforce shortage.

Regional airlines are the primary source for new hire pilots for mainline carriers. With Delta, United, Southwest and American in a hiring frenzy the airlines that provide 77 percent of Iowa’s daily departures are experiencing a critical shortage of pilots.

There is no silver bullet solution, but rather a handful of them to consider.

First, FAA needs to approve additional pathways for pilots to accrue the hours necessary to get licensed. This needs to be done carefully, according to the best available science and technology and with safety as the top priority. By changing the way we think about training and time building, we can actually improve the quality of our pilots and improve safety.

Second, pilot training needs to be more accessible. Training is prohibitively expensive and not eligible for traditional student financial aid. Iowa boasts world-class aviation institutions that would benefit from reforms. Some of these institutions include; University of Dubuque, Indian Hills Community College, Iowa Lakes Community College and Iowa Western. Additionally, Iowa’s airport system supports numerous, often family-owned and operated flight schools.

Pilot training needs to be data-driven. The system should move prospective pilots safely and efficiently through their education, not erect arbitrary barriers to entry and completion. Those in aviation need to encourage more people to consider the profession. The entire industry needs to come together and work with government to address the problem. We cannot afford to see this through a competitive lens, pitting airlines, airports and communities against each other.

What can Iowa do?

We can make a difference, but this is no time for “Iowa nice.” We need to talk openly and candidly about the economic impact. We need direct involvement from Iowa’s congressional delegation, community development leaders, state and local elected officials and airports.

Iowa’s economy demands a strong and robust aviation system. The time to act is now. Please contact your elected representatives and urge them to act.

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Keith Kaspari is director of the Waterloo Regional Airport. The essay is also endorsed by 17 other members of Iowa Public Airport Association.

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