US regional air cargo carriers are likewise feeling pinched by a shortage of qualified cockpit crew – another signal that a pilot shortage is gripping industry sectors that serve as entry points for the nation's professional pilots.
Executives in the regional air cargo industry, like their counterparts in the regional passenger airline business, say the shortage has been exacerbated by a 2013 pilot qualification rule.
"Even if things change tomorrow, the [pilot] pipeline is already dried up. It will take years to catch back up," Tim Komberec, chief executive of Hayden, Idaho-based Empire Airlines, tells FlightGlobal. "We need to start really focusing on solutions."
Empire operates a fleet of 22 ATR turboprops – three operating passenger flights in partnership with Hawaiian Airlines – and 38 Cessna Caravans.
"The number one thing on everybody's plate right now is a shortage of pilots," adds Stan Bernstein, president of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association, tells FlightGlobal. "Prior to the public law… we were one of the principal stepping stones for young pilots."
Bernstein's group represent Empire and nearly 50 other companies that operate regional cargo aircraft under contract with large package delivery companies like FedEx, UPS and DHL.
The law in question, passed in 2010, resulted in a 2013 rule that required commercial pilots have 1,500h of flight time, up from a previous 250h. The law stemmed from the deadly 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400.
Just last week, SkyWest Inc chief executive Chip Childs urged Congress to take steps to address the pilot shortage, which the Regional Airline Association predicts will leave the USA short 15,000 pilots by 2026.
The airline industry says the rule has not improved safety. It says pilots tend to accumulate the 1,500h flying alone or as instructors – experience that lacks the structure of airline operations.
At the same time, the cost and time required to accumulate those hours has dissuaded young pilots from pursuing an airline career.
Pilots unions, however, such as the Air Line Pilots Association, International, insist that low pay is to blame for any hiring difficulties.
"A lot of people are starting to leave aviation," says Bernstein. "It’s a very common occurrence today."
Bernstein's group and his allies have "pleaded with the FAA" to ease the rule by issuing more "restricted" ATPs, which would grant pilots credits against the 1,500h requirement.
"But the FAA always… says, 'Congress passed the law and we can't do anything about it'", according to Bernstein.
However, Bernstein believes pressure from the military, which itself is feeling the pilot shortage, could lead Congress to act.
In February, US Air Force general David Goldfein told reporters that military pilots tend to leave for the commercial sector as soon as they reach the 1,500h mark.
"I suspect that if the military keeps up this pressure, Congress will have no choice to act," says Bernstein.
"We have to find a way to … get more young people to get into the business, and find a way for them to pay for the horrific cost of becoming a professional pilot," says Empire's Komberec. "We don't seem to get anyone to sit down and have a reasonable dialogue. It’s a very emotional situation."