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Impending pilot shortage could prove disastrous for air travelers

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PHOENIX -

If you've booked your holiday air travel, you have probably noticed flying isn't as cheap as it used to be.

Between rising fuel costs and airline fees for everything from bags to leg room, the cost to fly has gone up.

Now a pilot shortage could eventually drive the cost even higher.

It's a story that's been floating around out there almost as a whisper. There are not enough pilots-in-training to meet the demand for flights in the U.S. for a lot of reasons -- and once it hits you in the wallet, you begin to realize how critical the shortage has become.

There's no doubt air travelers take for granted the relative ease with which we fly from point A to point B these days.

"The economy of the country and really the economy of the world runs on aviation and being able to move around the globe very quickly," says Gary Northam, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

But a pilot shortage wouldn't just affect those in the airline industry, it could impact the rest of us, according to the dean of Embry Riddle's College of Aviation.

"There may be some routes that are canceled as a result of that, there may be cutbacks."

That would mean higher prices at the ticket counter.

This flight school works hard to recruit the next generation of pilots on a daily basis, but that might not be enough -- with new regulations, costs that are sky high, aging pilots, a mandatory retirement at age 65, and a job that seems to have lost some of its luster.

With this looming shortage, what is it that is going to get these qualified pilots in training? Coming to places like Embry Riddle -- apparently the profession still has a lot to offer.

"The pilot shortage may be a problem in some issues, but it also is opportunities for people who want to get into that business and get into the industry," says Northram.

"I saw Top Gun, every pilot's got to love that movie but it's just something about pilots, they want to start flying when they're young. It's a passion that never goes away," says Justin Tamashiro, Embry Riddle freshman.

"The industry is all about seniority and you have to work up your way just like any job," says Gentry Long, Embry Riddle junior.

Working your way up can take a while, with little pay and a lot of student loan debt. But Dean Northam says would-be pilots need to think long term.

"The industry the educational institutions and the government have to work together in order to be able to produce the kind of pilots that we want in our industry."

Five years ago the government pushed the retirement age from 60 to 65. Half of all airline pilots are over age 50. Will they push it back to 70 to save the industry?

We'll see in the coming months if the government, the industry and the educational institutions get serious and address the issue -- if not, flights will be grounded and routes will be eliminated.

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