March 1, 2016
THE PILOT SHORTAGE is here, and it’s been making headlines. Network news channels have been carrying the story, as have dozens of print and online sources. Earlier this year, Republic Airways, a large U.S. regional carrier that flies on behalf of American and Delta, filed for bankruptcy protection. It blamed the filing, in part, on a dearth of qualified pilots. Other carriers have been cancelling flights and mothballing aircraft.
Yes, the shortage is real. It’s critical, however, to make clear which sectors of the airline industry we’re talking about. The first step in this discussion is to categorize properly. First, we are looking specifically at the U.S. airline industry. Civilian pilots in the United States are responsible for securing their own FAA credentials, and for logging hundreds of hours of flight time before applying at an airline. It’s a long, slow, and very expensive process. Other countries often recruit pilots differently, with a growing reliance on so-called “ab-initio” programs, whereby young candidates are chosen from scratch, with no prior experience, and are groomed from the ground-up, so to speak, in a tightly controlled regimen that puts them in the cockpit of a jetliner very quickly. These programs are ultra-competitive and there is no shortage of applicants.
Even more importantly, we need to draw a sharp divide between the major carriers and their regional affiliates. It’s the latter that have the problem on their hands. By “regional airline” we’re referring to the numerous subcontractors who operate smaller jets and turboprops: those myriad “Connection” and “Express” companies, whose actual identities are usually concealed beneath the liveries of their major carrier affiliates. For civilian pilots, the typical career progression includes a substantial amount of tenure at the regional level before, assuming he or she is fortunate enough, progressing to a major.
Unless something changes drastically, the majors will continue to have surplus of highly qualified candidates to choose from. They are able to cull from from the top ranks of the regionals, as well as from the military (military pilots often progress directly from the armed forces to the cockpits of major carriers, effectively skipping the regional racket entirely). Even with the impending wave of retirements, a steady supply of experienced crews is unlikely to be depleted.
At the regionals it’s a different story.
How it came to this is both a long and short story. The short story is that pay at the regionals is terrible and working conditions are harsh. Keep in mind that becoming a licensed pilot in the first place, to the point where one is eligible to apply for an airline job — any airline job — requires a huge amount of time and money. It can take years, and the average pilots sinks well over a hundred thousand dollars into his or her flight training and education. Salaries at the regionals, meanwhile, begin as low as $20,000 dollars a year, and top out at under six figures. Schedules are demanding and benefits paltry; the relationship between management and the workers is often hostile. On top of all that, the regional industry is highly unstable. Carriers come and go in waves of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies.
But this is nothing new. Pay and working conditions at these companies have always been substandard, and filling jobs has seldom been a problem. What’s different is that the regional sector has grown so large. It used to be very small, and pilots saw these jobs as a temporary inconvenience — paying one’s dues. It was a stepping stone toward a more lucrative position with a major. Today, regional jets account for an astonishing one half (53 percent was the last number I saw) of all domestic departures in the United States. Pilots are now realizing that a job at a regional could easily mean an entire career at a regional. Thus, a diminishing number of pilots have been willing to commit the time and money to their education and training when the return on investment is at best unpredictable.
In the meantime, the FAA has enacgted tougher hiring standards for entry-level pilots. Over the past two decades, as the regional sector grew and grew, thousands of new jobs were created. To fill these slots, airlines sharply lowered their experience and flight time minimums for new-hires. Suddenly, pilots were being taken on with as little as 350 hours of total time, assigned to the first officer’s seat of sophisticated regional jets. Twenty or thirty years ago this would have been unthinkable. Then came a rash of accidents, including the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) disaster outside Buffalo in 2009. Regulators began taking a closer look at hiring practices, eventually passing legislation mandating higher flight time totals and additional certification requirements for new-hires.
Some airlines blame the shortage at least partly on these tougher rules. Technically they’re right, but really all the new regulations are doing is returning things to historical norms. My first job with a regional — “commuters” we called them in those days — was in 1990. Competitive applicants at the time had between 1,500 and 2,000 hours, and most of us had an FAA Airline Transport Pilot certificate as well. That’s more or less what the FAA requires today. The difference, of course, is that there are more jobs to fill.
An aspiring aviator has to ask, is it worth sinking $100,000 or more into one’s primary training, plus the time it will take to build the necessary number of flight hours, plus the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major? For many the answer is no.
The regionals, to their credit, have begun upping their salaries. Some now offer signing bonuses of several thousand dollars, while work rules also are improving. The cost structures of these carriers, whose existence is primarily to allow the majors to outsource flying on the cheap, limits how much they can lavish on their employees. But if they want to stay in the game, they have little choice, frankly, other than improving their pay and benefits.