Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen knows better than to predict what direction the industry he has watched evolve over his seven-year tenure at the RAA might take next. So when asked to talk about further structural changes his group’s 30 or so airline members might see in the coming months and years, he offered a direct retort.
“I think anyone who tries to make broad projections going forward just hasn’t spent any time looking at the airline business,” said Cohen in the weeks leading up to this year’s convention. “We’ve seen consolidation but then just when you think things are consolidating, they change back again…The one thing I’ve learned in seven years is there’s no trend.”
Still, the RAA and its members can’t afford a less-than-proactive response to what more and more industry leaders have become convinced will play out as a pilot shortage.
“That absolutely remains a high priority both in the short term and long term and we’re encouraged that RAA’s leadership, in shining a spotlight on this issue, has broadened the discussion to where it is now a topic not only inside the industry but one on which there is widespread consensus among airlines, labor, academics and the government,” said Cohen.
Questions about the extent of the situation’s potential effect on regional airlines remain, however. Estimates vary over how much influence the new flight- and duty-time rule, due to take effect in January, will exert, as do projections over the effects of a new rule that will require first officers to carry an ATP certificate starting in August. Meanwhile, an expected increase in pilot retirements stands to further siphon the regional airline industry’s talent pool. In short, more than one circumstance appears likely to contribute to the problem, thereby calling for a multi-faceted solution.
“There is no one magic bullet,” said Cohen. “But I think it’s distressing to see that in so many of these aviation universities, there’s a sizable number of foreign students whose educations are being paid for by their governments. So I think it’s important that the government recognizes that if aviation is one of those cornerstone fundamental industries of this country, then it must continue to invest in the next generation of aviators, in human capital.”
For its part, the industry itself must help convince prospective pilots that the profession remains, as Cohen put it, “a damned good job and a damned good career.” Unfortunately, no longer do many young people perceive an aviation job as a glamorous occupation, thanks in part to horror stories of pilots qualifying for food stamps and cases of flight crews pooling their meager resources to pay for communal “crash pads.”
Now, prospective pilots must navigate a training environment in which regulators have, in Cohen’s words, “moved the goal posts” by requiring them to accumulate 1,500 hours of flight time and gain an aircraft type rating before becoming first officers.
The rule, warned Cohen, could disenfranchise almost an entire generation of young people. “People considering an education [in aviation] even when they’re twelve or fourteen thought that if they did the following things they’d be looking at an airline career when they got out of a university,” said Cohen. “That just changed dramatically on them.”
Ultimately, though, the communities that depend on regional airlines for their access to the country’s air transport network will bear the brunt of the rule’s cost, he lamented. “It doesn’t matter if there’s airplanes or passengers, if you don’t have the pilots to fly the aircraft, communities will lose service,” concluded Cohen.