Some of the very communities on which the regional airline industry built its legacy face “devastating cuts to air service” if the various stakeholders don’t act quickly, officials from the Regional Airline Association warn. The reasons vary, and each presents its own set of challenges. But perhaps the most immediate threat lies with the closure of and reduction in operating hours at hundreds of air traffic control towers resulting from the U.S. government’s automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Although on April 5 legislators deferred the planned April 7 start date for closing 149 towers to June 15, the change of heart last month looked more like a stay of execution than a reprieve.
RAA president Roger Cohen said scheduled airlines expect the actual tower closures to affect them minimally because most involve general aviation airports, but the proposal to cut the so-called midnight shift at 54 airports where regionals do command a strong presence could prove far more disruptive. Plans call for elimination of the midnight-to-6 a.m. shifts some time in late summer, likely in August or September.
RAA vice president Scott Foose noted that the RAA’s analysis predicts “routine” delays at several airports whose hours of operations between midnight and 6 a.m. the FAA plans to cut. “We found some airports where there are a sufficient number of departures scheduled close together in the morning that we anticipate there will be routine delays in departures if the tower remains closed around that departure push,” said Foose. “The FAA is receptive, though, to modifying [schedules] so that towers will open earlier so that they can increase the capacity of the airport during that push and hopefully avoid delays.”
Meanwhile, controller furloughs at major hubs would affect not only major airlines but also the regionals that provide connections and supplement point-to-point service. That prospect, perhaps more than the tower closures and midnight-shift eliminations, is particularly worrisome for the RAA, said Foose.
Pilot Shortage Exacerbated
More concerns stem from the new rule set to take effect January 4 that will increase by two hours the number of rest hours required for pilots before each flight duty period; place new limits on the number of hours a pilot can fly weekly and monthly; and extend the number of consecutive hours off in a seven-day period from 24 to 30 hours.
The rule, in combination with the expected spike in pilot retirements, stands to significantly exacerbate the coming pilot shortage most industry leaders expect and, again, lead to loss of service to small communities.
Foose cited estimates that the airline industry will need between 7 and 10 percent more pilots to fly today’s schedules once the new rule takes effect. “We’re definitely concerned about demand outpacing supply in the future, given the anticipated spike in airline pilot retirements,” said Foose. “That’s really something we haven’t seen in the past.”
Predicting pilot supply-and-demand trends has proved difficult, however, and the RAA has begun working with the University of North Dakota on a study to identify methods for performing more accurate assessments and generating more supply in the future.
Of course, any assessment must take into account the effects of a new public law that raises the flight-time minimum for first officers to 1,500 hours and requires an ATP certificate. Scheduled to take effect this August, the law gives the FAA the authority to create a new rule that would allow credit for certain academic or military experience.
Under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published in February last year, university-accredited pilots could qualify as first officers after 1,000 hours of flying and those with military experience could do so after 750 hours.
Foose chaired an FAA aviation rulemaking committee that, in his words, made some strong recommendations to allow credit for completion of educational programs outside the four-year university setting. Examples include flight training, non-accredited collegiate programs and academy programs such as that offered by RAA associate member Aerosim in Sanford, Fla.
“Frankly, I think [the rule] encourages somebody, rather than take on the debt associated with going to college, to skip college, go right into flying and get their 1,500 hours first,” said Foose. “That’s not what we want to encourage young people to do. We want them to finish their advanced education and come to us with degrees as well as experience.”