Mesa’s Ornstein Expresses ‘Disgust’ with Washington

 - May 14, 2014, 3:03 PM
Mesa Air Group CEO Jonathan Ornstein (Photo: Gregory Polek)

Seemingly bucking the trend suffered by most of the rest of the regional airline industry, Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group has managed to attract a fair share of qualified pilots to accommodate its high growth rates. But while speaking Wednesday at this year’s Regional Airline Association Convention in St. Louis, CEO Jonathan Ornstein made certain to ensure no one came away from the briefing with any doubt about his position on the new legislation that requires new hire first officers to carry an air transport pilot certificate.

“I really get a little disgusted listening to these guys, politicians, talk about ‘race to the bottom’ because if we are in a race to the bottom, you know who we’re going to find down there? Congress,” quipped Ornstein. “It’s really offensive to me, as a 25-year veteran of this industry, and my people.”

Ornstein noted that his airline’s first officers earned an average of nearly $45,000 last year while captains averaged $96,000. Although he must concede that entry-level pilots earn far less, he makes no apologies. “I would suggest that our union friends, if they’re concerned about income inequality, they can fix that,” said Ornstein. “We don’t need to have people making $96,000 if they don’t want to. If they’d rather start wages lower, that’s up to them. I’ll divide it up any way they want.”

Ornstein reported that the widest income inequality among any of its employee groups resides with its pilots.

The still fiery CEO recalled his decision to leave the RAA ten years ago because of a “tepid” reaction to the so-called One Level of Safety rule, requiring most Part 135 regional carriers in the U.S. to operate under more stringent Part 121 rules. “I said it would destroy the industry and we didn’t even oppose it,” said Ornstein, whose airline returned to the RAA last April. That rule, he asserts, resulted in an environment where companies such as Fairchild Dornier, Short Brothers and British Aerospace couldn’t survive. “Guess what? They all had Pratt & Whitney engines on them, or Garretts—all built in America—they all had Honeywell [equipment] in them…all American jobs destroyed by the idiocy we call Washington.”

Ornstein attributes his airline’s ability to continue to attract pilots to its recent growth surge, capped by a deal with United Airlines to fly 30 Bombardier CRJ900s. Consequently, pilots have moved to Mesa from other regional airlines for the chance to fly larger equipment. Unfortunately, many others have moved overseas to fly in Europe, for example, to fly mainline equipment, he noted. “The best of those young kids are going overseas,” he said. “And guess what they’re flying? They’re not flying CRJ200s…They’re flying in the right seat of an A330 with 250 hours. Now somehow the Europeans still seem to think that they’re OK.”


He-He.  Ornstein is "disgusted" with the race to the bottom?  Is he serious?  Guys like him and the way they have treated their pilots ARE the reason why young people and career changers don't want to become pilots anymore.  For example, Ornstein created an airline called Freedom Air several years back?  Why?  So he could whipsaw Mesa Air pilot groups againt Freedom pilots in order to drive down pilot wages- wages that were already so low many of his First Officers could qualify for food stamps.  If you read the pilot/aviaiton forums, Ornstein is allegedly one of the most depised regional airline CEOs out there.

And Johnnie O, it's not for your unions or your Captains to fix the problem you and your ilk have created.  When there was a nursing shortage in the mid 2000's, hospital administrators didn't go around asking physicians to take pay cuts in order to fund higher nursing pay.  They recognized reality (unlike you), and took the appropriate steps to attract new nurses into the industry.  They raised pay.  They gave them signing bonuses.  They gave them perks like relocation assistance.  What has the regional airline industry done besides cry in the press about their lack of ability to attract and retain pilots?  Well, pretty much nothing.  Entry level regional airline pay still hovers in the low 20's.  A FEW regional airlines offer some meager signing bonuses, but it isn't enough.  Stop blaming everyone else for the problem YOU created.  Pay pilots a living wage, and they will come, eventually.

And Johnnie O., if you want to talk about "income disparity," let's talk income disparity.  There are WAY too many links to post here, but Google "CEO income equality" and then get back to me about THAT topic.  Talk about being out of touch.  So yeah, you're right.  Us pilots are not concerned about the same "income equality" that you CEOs are.  You want to attract entry level First Officers?  Don't look for other employees to subsidize the solution to YOUR problem.  Pay a market wage, just lke every other industry has to do.  Or perhaps examine the paychecks of you and your senior executives and start making cuts there.

The One Level of Safety rules did not kill turboprops.  The consumer did.  Passengers DO NOT LIKE FLYING ON TURBOPROP AIRCRAFT.  You know that.  I know that.  That's what killed those types of aircraft.  That's why Mesa doesn't fly turboprop aircraft.  That transition started with Comair's initial success with the 50 seat RJ in the early 90's and it went on from there as THE CONSUMER drove the change from turboprops to turbojets.  So yeah, some of those manufacturers were hurt in the transition from turboprop to turbojets, but from those failed companies came new ones.  So Pratt, Garrett, and Honeywell make products for turbojets now instead of turboprops.  The good companies adapt to change.  The bad ones fail. 

And BTW Johnnie O, it's NOT OK to have a 250 hour pilot in the seat of any passenger carrying aircraft.  Just like it's not OK to replace you and your peer CEOs with the "best and the brightest" management school graduates with the ink still wet on their diplomas.  Sure Mesa, for example, could save a TON of money by replacing you with a brand new, smart, college graduate, but that's probably not wise, right?  No sane board is going to take a young, inexpericed yet "bright" management student and let him/her run a multi-million operation to save a few bucks on CEO compensation.  Same rules apply when it comes to replacing placing people in SAFETY SENSITIVE POSITIONS like pilots.  How is that difficult to understand?  Again, a brand new, 250 hour pilot HAS NO BUSINESS in the cockpit of a US airliner just because a few foreign airlines use low-time pilots as "cruise" pilots (they don't do take-offs or landings) on widebody jets. 

In conclusion, John, instead of whing on the mike at you and your peers' little get together, you should have been collectively been trying to COME UP WITH A PLAN to fix your pilot retention and attraction problems.  Not complaining about federal air regulations.  Not blaming unions for your pilot salary problems.  You should have all gotten together and realized that hey, paying entry level pilots with six-figure debt less than what a fast food manager earns probably isn't a long term solution to the pilot retention problem you guys face.    


There is no pilot shortage, just a pilot pay shortage. Increase pilot pay and many well qualified pilots who have left the industry due to low pay would return. I was a regional Captain earning 1/25 of the Major airline Captain's pay. Why not just pay all pilots the same and eliminate the seniority system? The USA is a meritocracy, meaning merit dictates pay, not seniority, so if a pilot is better than another pilot, the better pilot that produces more for the airline should be pay more.

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