ANALYSIS: Regionals adopt varying tactics to pilot crunch

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US regional airlines continue to feel the pinch of new pilot training and rest regulations.

Great Lakes Airlines ended service to six cities due to a pilot shortage in February and Republic Airlines will park 27 Embraer regional jets with up to 50 seats for similar reasons by the end of 2014.

“There’s a very real pilot shortage but it exists in one part of the [airline] industry, and that’s the regionals,” says Dave Pflieger, president and chief executive of Silver Airways, at the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium earlier in April.

The Fort Lauderdale-based regional carrier is consolidating its operations around its 30-seat Saab 340B turboprop operations in Florida and from Washington Dulles. To do this, it will park its five remaining 19-seat Beechcraft 1900D aircraft and end service at Cleveland Hopkins International airport in May and will discontinue subsidised service to five cities in Alabama and Mississippi from Atlanta in July.

By ending its Alabama, Mississippi and Ohio operations, Silver says that it can focus resources – including flight crews – on its other operations.

The moves by Silver and other carriers follow a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated increase in pilot training requirements to 1,500h from 250h in January and changes to duty and rest requirements in 2013.

The new regulations were cited for exacerbating severe weather-related flight disruptions during the first quarter when tens-of-thousands of regional flights were cancelled. United Airlines says that roughly 30,000 of its nearly 35,000 cancellations during the period were regional flights.

“The idea that 1,500-hour pilots are categorically better than highly trained 500-hour pilots we train from day one in a very regimented environment, is absurd,” says Jonathan Ornstein, chief executive of Mesa Airlines. “There is absolutely no science to support this requirement and it makes no sense.”

How regional airlines are dealing with the new rules varies.

Silver and its pilots union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, identified what pilots would not meet the 1,500h rule and began flying those crew members around on non-revenue flights to increase their hours from July, says Pflieger.

This has worked for the regional carrier up to this point but a longer-term model, for example one similar to that at Lufthansa who has their own flight school to train pilots, is needed, he says.

“The FARs are here to stay, so let’s deal with them and move on,” says Pflieger. “To me it’s all about problem solving rather then crying about the sky is falling and trying to change the rules. Let’s just get on with it and fix them.”

Phoenix-based Mesa is concerned about the long-term economics of the new regulations.

“By making airlines less efficient, we will end up with an industry with fewer planes and less service,” says Ornstein. “Nineteen, 30, 37 and now 50-seat aircraft – either have been or will be eliminated from the US aviation system under the burden of over-regulation.”

Mesa stopped its last regular service with 50-seat regional jets – its intra-Hawaii subsidiary go! – on 1 April. A move that Ornstein says they should have done sooner.

The carrier is not having trouble attracting new pilots, despite the new rules.

“We continue to attract pilots, often from other airlines, because of our industry leading growth plans,” says Ornstein. He cites opportunities for advancement and base flexibility as two reasons why Mesa is not having trouble attracting crews.

Mesa is in the midst of adding 30 Embraer 175s to its operations with United and four Bombardier CRJ900s to its operations with American Airlines. It already operates 20 CRJ700s for United and 47 CRJ900s for American.

The airline has had to increase staffing levels by 5% to 6% and reduced its duty day to 12h from 16h under the new regulations, says Ornstein.

SkyWest Inc – parent of ExpressJet Airlines and SkyWest Airlines, and the largest regional carrier in the USA – also has not faced hiring challenges to date, according to president Brad Rich.

“It’s clear that the various factors and changing industry dynamics have made fewer pilots available industry-wide,” he said in February. “Our operating entities continue to attract qualified pilots. But again as I said, we do expect that this is getting harder and harder and will be a challenge in the future.”

Airlines need at least 14,000 new pilots to replace retirees though 2021, according to report by Cowen Securities analyst Helane Becker in December 2013. These numbers do not include the industry’s anticipated 1% to 3% annual growth rate.

“Regional airlines will struggle to find pilots due to the new pilot rules,” she writes. “Many of the mainline carriers will hire away pilots to meet their capacity needs coming at a time where the pilot pool continues to shrink.”