The US Regional Airline Association (RAA) is pushing back against assertions made during a 16 March Senate hearing that the airline industry is not short of pilots.

During that hearing, Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) president Jason Ambrosi insisted new-pilot pipelines are sufficient to meet demand and said pilot training is holding back the industry.

“Such a claim defies common sense and logic,” RAA chief executive Faye Malarkey Black shot back in a 16 March statement. “Nearly every major airline and regional airline CEO has explained… that deep air service losses to otherwise profitable smaller communities are the direct result of the pilot shortage.”

E175 SkyWest

Source: Ian Dewar Photography/Shutterstock

A SkyWest Airlines Embraer 175 regional jet

Indeed, the aviation industry has for years been warning of a pilot “shortage”, citing too few new pilots amid rapidly growing air-travel demand.

Regional airline representatives did not testify at the Senate hearing, called “Strengthening the Aviation Workforce”.

ALPA’s Ambrosi did. He tells lawmakers that “big airlines have far more pilots than they had pre-pandemic”.

A “massive training backlog… is really the root of why we are not flying pre-pandemic levels”, Ambrosi says, adding that airlines shed pilots during the pandemic and that training has not kept up with new-pilot hiring.

Ambrosi is correct that the largest US airlines now employ more pilots than in 2019. United Airlines, for instance, ended 2022 with 13,831 pilots, up from 12,251 at the end of 2019, securities filings show.

But US regional airlines insist the pilot shortage primarily affects them, not larger carriers. That is because larger, better-paying airlines poach their pilots. The RAA says too few new-hires exist to backfill losses.

For instance, regional airline company SkyWest employed 4,704 pilots at the end of 2022, down from 5,239 in 2019.

“Some regional carriers, including our wholly owned subsidiary, Endeavor, are facing a shortage of qualified pilots and experiencing operating constraints as a result,” Delta Air Lines says in its 2022 financial report. “If this shortage becomes more widespread, third-party regional carriers may not be able to comply with their obligations to us.”

‘1,500h rule’

The Senate hearing came as lawmakers consider the Federal Aviation Administration’s next funding bill, which would take effect in October. As in previous years, the USA’s “1,500h” pilot-experience rule is proving contentious.

The rule – a response to the deadly 2009 crash of a Colgan Air turboprop – requires pilots have 1,500h of flight time before flying for airlines. There are exemptions: military pilots can take airline jobs with 700h, and university graduates can do so with 1,000h or 1,250h.

A220 cockpit-c-Airbus

Source: Airbus

The cockpit of an Airbus A320

Regional airlines have advocated for exemptions that would apply to pilots who complete formal airline training.

Critics have described the rule as a barrier to entry, saying it protects existing pilot jobs and, due to the cost of logging so many hours, dissuades students from pursuing airline careers.

The RAA blames the rule for forcing regional airlines to cut service to small communities. It also insists the rule does not make for better or safer pilots.

“Pilots entering airline training programmes today are less prepared,” says Malarkey Black. “Despite their high flight time, they have not mastered swept-wing-jet aerodynamics, they lack crucial experience in congested airspace, they have no experience recovering from high altitude upsets, they have not experienced engine fires, failures or other mechanical problems.”

Efforts to change the rule have so far failed amid staunch opposition from some lawmakers and from ALPA, which has criticised changes as detrimental to safety.

“Special interest would like to make an argument we should roll back pilot training and safety requirements… in order to serve those smaller markets,” Ambrosi says. “We absolutely are opposed.”