Story updated on 16 September to clarify comments made by Regional Airline Association president Faye Malarkey Black about new-hire pay.
US regional carriers find themselves at the sharp end of the increasing struggle to secure enough pilots to fill their ranks, a challenge which is already impacting the sector's ability to grow.
The airlines, through their Washington-based trade group, are now pursuing regulatory channels to ease what they call a “pilot shortage”, pushing a proposal that would modify a controversial 2013 rule that requires new pilots to have 1,500h of flight time.
At the same time, the USA’s top pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) continues to push back, insisting a shortage of pay – not stricter pilot qualifications – is ultimately to blame for hiring difficulties.
Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association trade group, tells FlightGlobal: “It’s pretty impossible to deny that we have a real and worsening pilot shortage. Right now, regional airlines are on the front line of this problem, but in a few short years this is going to be everybody’s problem.”
Sami Teittinen, chief executive of Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways, says the 1,500h rule has “absolutely” caused hiring difficulties.
“The hiring pool continues to shrink. It’s hard to find pilots with 1,500h,” he says. “I am a much stronger supporter of less hours [with] more-structured training programmes.”
The RAA’s Black says the pilot shortage has loomed for years, but until recently was mitigated by factors including the industry pull-back following the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the most recent economic recession.
In addition, in 2007 the US Congress passed a law advancing the commercial pilot minimum retirement age to 65 from 60, further delaying the problem, she says.
But times have changed.
Now airlines are expanding, and veteran pilots are increasingly reaching the cut-off age, notes the RAA, which represents most large US regional airlines.
Teittinen says “everyone is hiring rapidly”, including the major airlines. Silver’s prime challenge is coping with rapid turnover, he says, noting that pilots often leave the airline after as little as three years for jobs at the major carriers. In the past, pilots might work several years as first officers, then three or four years as captains before making the transition, he says.
The RAA cites a 2016 study from the University of North Dakota showing that between 1,000 and 3,000 pilots a year will retire from US mainline carriers in the next 10 years, with some 20,000 pilots having hit retirement age by 2024.
The Pilot Supply Forecast says that between now and 2020, major airlines will need to hire some 18,600 pilots – roughly the same number as is currently employed by US regional airlines, the RAA notes.
The shortage in 2016 stands at only a few hundred pilots, but, even including projected new recruits, the US airline industry will be short about 1,250 pilots annually by 2020 and nearly 2,000 pilots annually by 2023, the North Dakota study shows.
By 2026, the industry will be short, cumulatively, more than 14,000 pilots, according to the report.
Although the shortage will affect the entire industry, it will initially affect regional airlines, where rookie pilots typically gain experience before transitioning to major carriers, Black notes.
She says that last year RAA member airlines hired just 63% of the roughly 6,000 pilots they had hoped to recruit.
The RAA says the shortage has caused, and could continue to cause, air service reductions at US airports. It notes that some 150 US markets lost seats and departures in recent years, with 27 communities losing all scheduled air service.
Some regional carriers have in recent months called attention to hiring bonuses and other programmes designed to attract recruits.
In June American Airlines’ three wholly owned subsidiaries – Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines – announced they would pay $15,000 bonuses to newly hired pilots and $5,000 to employees who refer new pilots.
PSA also pays first officers a bonus of $2,500 quarterly, up to $20,000, until they advance to the captain’s seat.
Trans States Airlines also this year announced a new internship programme designed to help students transition to jobs at the carrier. The company will also pay interns up to $10,000 in tuition reimbursement, the company said.
“The pilot shortage is the most serious issue facing our company today,” the airline says. “It has led us to ground aircraft and discontinue service in some markets.”
The carrier adds that interest in the internship programme has been “encouraging”, but says interns have still not accumulated the flight time needed for airline service.
“We have also increased starting pay for our pilots to among the highest in the regional airline industry,” Trans States says. “However, even with these incentives, we’re still faced with a very difficult recruiting environment.”
In May another carrier, Republic Airways, announced a hiring partnership with the Ohio State University, calling the agreement and similar arrangements with other universities “crucial for our company in combatting the serious pilot shortage”.
For its part Silver hopes a new “pilot hiring partnership” with Frontier Airlines, announced in June, will attract new recruits. The carrier is also finalising an agreement under which it will reimburse students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for flight training costs if they become Silver pilots, Teittinen says.
While bonuses can encourage hiring, the RAA and some carriers argue pay is not the primary cause of, or solution to, the problem.
Rather, they say hiring difficulties have been significantly exacerbated by a 2013 rule that set new requirements for airline pilots.
The rule stemmed from the 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop that stalled and crashed near Buffalo at night, killing all 49 people on the aircraft and one person on the ground.
The National Transportation Safety Board pinned the cause of the crash on pilot error, but also cited training deficiencies and fatigue as factors contributing to the accident.
Responding to calls for safety improvements, in 2010 Congress responded with a law requiring that the FAA make broad overhauls to duty time and pilot training and qualification standards.
The law resulted in the agency issuing several rules, among them the new-pilot qualification rule, which took effect in mid-2013.
The rule has several provisions. It requires new pilots to hold a type rating for the aircraft they fly and stipulates improved high-altitude, adverse-weather and other training – measures the RAA says it supports.
But the rule also requires new pilots to have accumulated a minimum of 1,500h of flight time (with some exceptions) and hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.
In the past, new first officers needed only a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, which requires just 250h of flight time.
The 1,500h requirement has created a “steep barrier to entry” for beginner pilots, forcing them to build up more flight hours at greater expense before being eligible for airline employment, says Black.
“If you are a pilot outside the industry right now looking in, there is a big brick wall,” she says. “It’s not true that the rule caused the pilot shortage, but it shrunk our pilot pool."
Bryan Bedford, chief executive of Republic Airways Holdings, has repeatedly criticised the rule for similar reasons, saying it has fuelled a pilot shortage by dissuading young pilots from entering the industry.
Republic even cited the pilot shortage as a factor contributing to its February Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing.
Ironically, the rule has also produced pilot recruits who perform worse in, or require more, airline training, the RAA contends.
Teittinen agrees, saying Silver has recently been rejecting more recruits. The reasons are many, including log book discrepancies, legal troubles, a history of accidents and training failures, he says.
Teittinen adds that many of Silver’s recruits are now older – about 35 years old, he says, up from about 29 years.
And Silver increasingly hires pilots who have retired from major carriers or are starting second careers.
With age comes maturity – a valuable asset in the cockpit – but second-career recruits might need more time transitioning to the structured life of an airline pilot, Teittinen says.
“We see a lot of people from different walks of life,” he says. “A lot of them are coming into the commercial world for the first time at a later age.”
Not everyone agrees with the regional airline industry’s assessment that the 1,500h rule is to blame for hiring shortages.
ALPA, among Washington’s most powerful aviation organisations, has resisted efforts to do away with the 1,500h rule, insisting that regional carriers need only increase pay to attract pilots.
“It’s really just supply and demand,” ALPA president Tim Canoll said in February. “If they raise their first-year pay to $50,000, all their classes will be filled, but they are paying [pilots] $22,000, and not filling their classes.”
ALPA issued a media release in August in which it estimated that pilots at seven US regional carriers earned less than $30,000 in their first year of service.
The union says that some carriers have recently signed improved contracts and launched helpful career advancement programmes, “but much more needs to be done”.
The RAA also disputes ALPA’s pay figures, saying entry-level regional pilots earn an average of $42,622, including signing bonuses and training compensation but not healthcare costs.
The group says the median annual US airline pilot wage was $117,290 in 2015, and is rising.
“Despite the wages being at all-time highs, we are not seeing a corresponding influx of new pilots,” Black says. “That’s because it’s not a pay problem uniquely.”
Black concedes it would be “disingenuous” to say pay has no relation to hiring, adding “first-year salaries can be painful”.
But pilot pay has been low, she clarifies, largely because pay scales are negotiated between companies and unions – unions that are typically controlled by senior, higher-paid pilots. The unions' jobs are to protect employed pilots, a goal that can come at the expense of new first officers, Black says.
“It is time for ALPA to acknowledge that they share a role,” Black says.
She adds that US airlines -- both regional and major carriers -- have historically paid relatively low entry-level wages; it’s been an industry in which new pilots pay dues as they work their way up the ladder, she says.
While the RAA says new-pilot bonuses and pay increases are helping, the group has in recent months been lobbying for what it sees as a policy fix.
The fix lies in loopholes already existing in the 1,500h rule, called ATC certificates with “restricted privileges”, which enable some pilots with fewer than 1,500h to work at airlines.
The rule currently allows the FAA to issue restricted ATPs to three categories of pilots: those with 750h of military flying time, those with 1,000h and a bachelor’s degree in aviation, and those with 1,250h and an associate’s degree in aviation.
The RAA is making a case that another restricted category be added: the “air carrier enhanced” restricted ATP.
Although the group does not say what minimum flight time it is proposing, it says pilots who complete “a selective and structured training programme” should be granted a credit against the 1,500h requirement.
“This programme will provide specific and comprehensive first officer training that will be safer than solely meeting current flight hour requirements,” a document released by the group says.
“We believe the FAA has the authority to approve our programme,” Black says. “We want the FAA to explore the concept.”
Source: Cirium Dashboard