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.”