Regionals Face Epic Challenge To Fill Pilot Positions
Few doubt that the new rules governing pilot duty time and first officer qualifications will challenge human resource departments at regional airlines throughout the U.S. But to a nation that depends on regional airlines for some 50 percent of its flights, the extent to which the new regulations will affect the supply of pilots and service to small communities remains largely underappreciated, much to the frustration of the Regional Airline Association and its members.
Speaking at the group’s annual convention in late May, American Eagle president and RAA chairman Dan Garton issued some alarming projections. Using an assumption of an 8-percent demand increase generated by the new duty and rest requirements alone, Garton noted that the major airlines will need some 4,000 more pilots, only about 1,000 of which he said they will draw from the ranks of furloughed crewmembers.
Regional airline pilots, he said, will satisfy virtually of the remaining one-time demand for 3,000 mainline pilots. Of course, the 8-percent demand increase will also apply to the regionals, meaning the supply of 16,000 pilots they now employ will have to grow by 1,300, due solely to the new rule. Assuming a loss of 3,000 pilots to the majors, regionals will therefore need to hire some 4,300 more pilots, said Garton, or a number equal to more than a quarter of their entire workforce.
“At this time the age 65 rule will have been lapped, and we will begin to experience normal attrition as well, so what I’m trying to describe here isn’t sort of ongoing pilot demand, this is incremental to what it has been essentially ever,” said Garton.
“That’s the demand phenomenon. On the supply side, for those of us active in hiring in the last few years, it hasn’t been easy already. Pilot supply is already somewhat tight.
“And now we’ll add on to it the 1,500-hour rule in January 2014.”
In an effort to more accurately gauge the effect of the rule that requires, among other new conditions, a first officer to carry an ATP certificate, the RAA surveyed its members last year on the number of flight hours each pilot they hired during the first nine months of 2011 had accumulated. Forty-six percent of those pilots had flown fewer than 1,500 hours.
“To me, it’s impossible to imagine how all that’s going to work out,” said Garton. “People have asked where will the shortfall be felt. Service will be reduced to smaller communities, but it’s almost impossible to predict where, at least right now because you don’t know which regional airline will fall short of pilots because there will be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
A panel led by RAA president Roger Cohen during the convention explored strategies for attracting more talent, including offering paid internships such as that espoused and instituted by Cape Air president Dave Bushy. A success story by virtually any measure, privately held Cape Air has grown to fly 68 Cessna 402s to 40 cities from 19 destinations just about five years ago and turned a $3.2 million profit last year in an environment where the industry’s publicly traded airlines registered a net loss.
Bushy recounted a time when Cape Air’s human resources department had two pilot resumés on file, so it hasn’t enjoyed any special immunity against the phenomenon of cockpit crew shortages.
Cape Air addressed the problem with what it calls its Gateway Path for developing pilots in partnership with Embry-Riddle University and the University of North Dakota. Under the program, students get the chance to intern with Cape Air and, eventually, find employment with code-share partner JetBlue.
Bushy lamented how many airlines treat pilots as commodities rather than human beings, leading to disenchantment with the profession.
“We’ve seen a decline in the luster, in the image, of the airline pilot,” said Bushy. “And we all collectively own that… Some people just aren’t excited about this business anymore,” explained Bushy during the panel discussion. “So you have not enough supply coming from the military, not enough coming into the ranks of the regionals, and then, of course, we [the industry] don’t have pathway, pipeline programs. We rob Peter to pay Paul is a good way of putting it.”