The shortage of qualified entry-level pilots at the regional airlines hasn’t come as some unexpected phenomenon to the Regional Airline Association. The group has warned for years now that the change in first-officer pilot requirements that mandates an ATP certificate and what it terms an “arbitrary” 1,500 hours of flying time would result in loss of air service to small communities in particular. But when United Airlines a few months ago said it would strip Cleveland of its hub status it became clear to many more “stakeholders” the extent of the predicament in which they would ultimately find themselves.
Even now, according to RAA vice president Scott Foose, people in places such as his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., often don’t fully appreciate the extent to which their communities need regional air service until they actually lose it. “The economic impact hasn’t really resonated yet,” said Foose. “I think we have an obligation to make sure that everyone around the country, including the policy makers in Washington, understands how this is going to cause a significant loss of jobs on top of the service losses that will continue.”
Unfortunately, the situation stands to get much worse when a wave of pilots begin retiring as they reach the age of 65 and major airlines dip into the regional ranks to fill the resulting empty positions.
“Although the anticipated spike in major-airline retirements has really not hit us with full force yet, there certainly has been some hiring by the majors and as a result the regionals are also in a hiring mode,” said Foose. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find pilots who meet those new qualification standards.”
Foose added that “all indications” point to pilot attrition reaching a peak next year. He also cited projections that 18,000 pilots will retire over the next 10 years. Most of those, of course, will come from U.S. major airlines.
“Our pilots are the best…they get the best training, they get the best experience,” said Foose. “So naturally we would expect major airlines to look at our guys and girls when they’re looking to hire.”
Already the industry has felt the effects. On February 14 Silver announced plans to exit operations in its Cleveland network, retire its five 19-seat Beech 1900s and retrain or redeploy its pilots and mechanics to operate its “core” Saab 340Bs to its “key” markets. Not coincidentally, United Airlines had decided to cut the level of its United Express service out of Cleveland by 70 percent and strip the city of its hub status last month.
Consequently, Silver issued its required 90-day notice to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to end scheduled service between Cleveland and Jamestown, N.Y., Bradford, DuBois and Franklin, Pa., and Parkersburg, W.Va., no later than May 15.
For its part, Great Lakes Aviation on February 1 suspended service from Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; Ironwood, Mich; and Thief River Falls, Minn., attributing the cutback “to the severe industry-wide pilot shortage and its relative acute impact on Great Lakes,” according to a company statement.
Not only small, 19-seat turboprop operations have felt the effects of the phenomenon; in fact, one of the largest regional airlines in the U.S.–Republic Airways–indicated it would institute the most drastic measures to address the shortage by removing 27 of 41 Embraer ERJ-140s from service, 15 of which it flies for American Airlines and the other 12 for United Airlines. Republic estimates that the rule change will result in the creation of 750 fewer jobs than originally planned at the company this year.
Although he wouldn’t name individual airlines, Foose said he sees more service cuts coming “deep into next year” and continuing four or five years after that. The RAA says the so-called 1,500-hour rule on its own threatens service to some 600 communities in the U.S. Meanwhile, another new rule governing flight and duty times did its part to shorten the supply of pilots as well. That rule, which raised by two hours the minimum number of hours of rest a pilot must get before each flight duty period, placed new limits on the number of hours a pilot can fly weekly and monthly, and extended the number of consecutive hours off in a seven-day period to 30 from 24, has resulted in a need for 5 percent more pilots this year, said Foose.
But while the new regulations have drained supply in relatively short order, replenishing that supply will take considerably longer and require a lot more effort than writing bigger paychecks to entry-level pilots. Foose dismissed charges that the shortage of pilots has resulted from the regionals’ low starting pay, and asserted that a pilot’s lifetime career earnings compare favorably with many professions requiring similar levels of education. The problem, he said, lies largely in the fact that regulators did not follow most of the recommendations of an FAA rulemaking committee he chaired that called for a multi-tiered system under which pilots could earn credits in lieu of flight time as they achieved certain educational and/or experience benchmarks. The committee identified 14 different academic training courses for which prospective pilots should earn credits against the 1,500-hour standard. The final rule adopted only three of the 14 recommended criteria. The RAA now wants the FAA to revisit those recommendations. “We’re going to have to find a way to do a better job of refining this rule,” concluded Foose.
Foose maintained that the RAA’s membership insists on only the highest standard of safety, and that it does not oppose the requirement for an ATP certificate for first officers. It takes issue only with the limited number of routes now available to earning it, he stressed. He noted that the association’s hard work over the past five years in ensuring that regional airlines participate in voluntary safety programs reflects that commitment. “Regional airlines in the U.S. have the highest rate of participation in gold-plated safety programs [such as] FOQA and Asap,” higher than even the major airlines, said Foose. “So while we’re focusing on pilot supply, we’re keeping an eye on the safety ball and the training ball as well.”