As Communities Lose Air Service, Regional Airlines Decry Flight-Hour Threshold for Pilots

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RAA president Roger Cohen calls a 1,500-hour requirement for new-hire first officers "arbitrary." (Photo: Gregory Polek)
February 25, 2014, 12:03 PM

As Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Silver Airways became the third U.S. regional airline this month to announce significant service cuts due to what it called a nationwide pilot shortage, the Regional Airline Association amplified its message of opposition to a new rule requiring 1,500 hours of flying experience for new-hire first officers. The “arbitrary” number of hours chosen by regulators does nothing to enhance safety, according to RAA president Roger Cohen. Rather, it discourages young people from entering the profession and disqualifies from regional airline cockpits perfectly capable pilots, leaving member airlines strapped for crew and threatening air service to more than 600 communities around the country, in the estimation of the RAA.

“[The airlines] are being held hostage to a number, an arbitrary number,” Cohen told AIN last Friday. “Everyone was ready [for the rule change]. Every RAA airline met the rule and did everything that was in their control. There was no way to control the number of people in the pipeline, that were in universities or in training, to get them to 1,500 hours. You can’t create time.”

As a result, Silver Airways, Indianapolis-based Republic Airways and Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Aviation all had to cut service, and others have found themselves in a similarly untenable position, according to association vice president Scott Foose. 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 has decided to cut the level of its United Express service out of Cleveland by 70 percent and strip the city of its hub status in April.

“Every member airline is feeling this pinch,” said Cohen. “And because of that every community that those airlines serve is feeling this pinch. You just can’t create pilots out of whole cloth.”      

Consequently, Silver issued its required 90-day notice to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to end scheduled service between Cleveland and Jamestown, New York., Bradford, DuBois, and Franklin, Pennsylvania, and Parkersburg, West Virginia, no later than May 15.

For its part, Great Lakes Aviation on February 1 suspending service from Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; Ironwood, Mich; and Thief

River Falls, Minn., “due 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—appears ready to institute the most drastic measures to address the shortage. In a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Republic said it will remove 27 of 41 Embraer ERJ-140s from service, 15 of which it flies for American Airlines and the other 12 for United Airlines. “Entering 2014, the company had 41 Embraer aircraft [on lease] which were scheduled to expire during the calendar year. The company believed it was well positioned to extend these aircraft under a fixed-fee service agreement,” the filing said. “Due to the significant reduction in qualified pilots who meet the congressionally mandated 1,500 hour pilot experience rule and the company’s rigorous qualification standards, the company is no longer seeking extensions for 27 of the 41 ERJ aircraft.”

Republic estimates that the rule change will result in the creation of 750 fewer jobs than originally planned at the company this year.

Cohen said he sees the pilot shortage worsening, at least until regulators decide to act on pleas from communities that have lost air service. “Seventy percent of the country’s airports have service exclusively from regional airlines,” said Cohen. “All of them are in jeopardy of losing some or all of their service, and communities much larger…those that have a mix of regional and mainline service are also in real jeopardy of losing some or all of their service. I would say if a community is not in the top 30 airports, [it’s] in jeopardy.”

As an alternative to the 1,500-hour standard, the RAA favors a multi-tiered system recommended by an FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) under which pilots could earn credits in lieu of flight time as they achieved “certain milestones and gateways,” as Cohen called them. “If that majority recommendation had been incorporated into the rules, we would not have this problem today,” he said.

As it reads now, the rule allows pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours of flight time or who have not reached the minimum age of 23 to obtain a “restricted privileges” ATP certificate, which, for example, exempts pilots with 750 hours of flying time in the military. Other exceptions allow for college graduates holding a bachelor’s degree to qualify with only 1,000 hours and aviation majors holding an associate’s degree with 1,250 hours.

However, the ARC identified 14 different academic training courses for which prospective pilots should earn credits against the 1,500-hour standard, including 350 hours for a four-year college or university accredited flight training program, 200 hours for a non-accredited four-year program, 150 hours and 100 hours, respectively, for an accredited and non-accredited two-year college program, 500 hours for military rotary-wing experience as well as the 750 hours for fixed-wing flying, 200 hours for military instructor pilot experience, 100 hours for any initial certified flight instructor certificate and 50 hours for each subsequent CFI certificate. It also recommended 100 hours of credit for a Part 141/142 flight academy training program, 50 hours for any Part 141 training program and no credit for a Part 61 program.

The final rule adopted only three of the 14 recommended criteria. The RAA now wants the FAA to revisit those recommendations.  

“We certainly believe that as more people see what the impact an arbitrary number is having, change will come sooner rather than later, before all these communities really get disconnected forever and permanently off the global map,” said Cohen. “Every community ought to notify their members of Congress that this is a concern and then Congress can act accordingly, and I think everybody should let the FAA know about how much it’s impacting them…Because we believe it is within the authority of the FAA to make revisions.”  

 

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avitengineer's picture
avitengineer
on February 25, 2014 - 1:28pm

What Mr. Cohen fails to recognize are the pathetic pay rates for pilots at these regional airlines. I see no discussion in this article about raising pay rates to attract qualified pilots from the food-stamp qualifying wages of $15,000 a year. If these airlines offered a livable wage, I bet you would see all kinds of qualified pilots coming out of other industries to fly again. If these airlines can't operate a business that pays it's pilots a decent wage, then by all means let their operations fold. I am glad to see it happening.

Best Selling Author, Pete Buffington, "Squawk 7700"

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branower
on February 25, 2014 - 1:38pm

So, regional airlines are complaining about the "severe" pilot shortage. Perhaps they should reevaluate their business model. Somehow, the entire industry has accomodated the significant runnup in fuel prices over the last decade, which I believe is now the highest direct operating expense for airlines, but they are still paying pathetic starting wages. It costs a young person upwards of $75,000-$100,000 to complete flight training so they can earn starting salaries below $25,000/year. I've been flying professionally for 40 years and I'm currently earning about what I earned in the early 1990's. Almost all of the pilots I know have seen their salaries decline or remain stagnant for 15-20 years. I personally know many well qualified pilots who are unemployed or have moved to other occupations. They simply are not willing work for an un-livable wage. You can only love flying so much!

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matt
on February 25, 2014 - 2:03pm

Mr. Cohen conveniently forgets the wage issue. If regionals would pay livable wages, pilots would magically reappear to fill those positions. If the regionals cannot or will not make the wage changes, then let them shut down. There has never been nor will there ever be a pilot shortage in this country, only pilots who are willing to work for nothing!

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tdwnds1
on February 25, 2014 - 4:42pm

Boo hoo! The regionals cant find people who want to make the equivalent of 8.50/hour with a tremendous amount of responsibility?

Your business model dosent work anymore. Either adapt or wither on the vine!

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matt
on February 25, 2014 - 11:11pm

I would like to respectfully challenge this publication and any other aviation related publication or author to ask and publish, persons like Mr. Cohen or any other regional airline official, their response as to why those airlines are unwilling to bring pilot wages to a livable level.

It does a real disservice to tell readers there is a pilot "shortage" as per regional airline officials without asking them about their pay levels when there are plenty of ATP rated pilots who will tell your readers where the real "shortage" is. A lot of them have already said so in response to some of the other pilot "shortage" articles this publication has published.

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Inspector
on February 26, 2014 - 9:43am

I'm sorry to have to be the one to break this to you new pilots, but 1500 hours is not enough experience to be expected to manage a modern airliner alone. And that is what you are hired for: there are two pilots for redundancy, not to make the job easier.

I've spent decades in classrooms, simulators, and cockpits, watching pilots train and work. Most of the pilots I've observed have over 3000-hours, as historically the major airlines have hired few pilots with under 3000-hours. At 3000-hours their skills are stunning, but they are still gaining judgment and wisdom rapidly. Over the past 15 years there has been a sudden surge of hiring airline pilots with a few hundred hours, not enough experience to take my daughter out in a Chevy, much less hundreds of passengers in a jet. The fact that there haven’t been accidents is frankly amazing, a testament to modern pre-planning and forecasting, modern automation, and the survival instincts of the Captains who tell me stories of things they’ve seen new First Officers do dangerously wrong.

Until fairly recently, pilots didn’t get interviews at airlines until they had 3000-5000 hours. The recent and brief period of hiring younger, less experienced, and much cheaper pilots should not be somehow taken to be the “new normal”. I agree the job has changed permanently to an easier task of managing highly automated aircraft in a highly organized system. But when something breaks, which all machines do, the job becomes the same as it was in the bad old days, of manually flying while fixing and/or compensating for what is broken, and devising and executing a whole new plan likely unlike anything you trained for.

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samaritan
on February 28, 2014 - 6:00am

United we stand, divided we fall. I agree with other comments there is no pilot shortage, just a salary shortage caused, in my observation, by division among main line and regional pilots over who gets the lion's share of the ticket price allocated to pilot costs. I flew as Part 121 Captain for a regional airline and watched our main line partner hire pilots from our competing regional airlines rather than rob pilots from their regional partners. The main line pilots were perfectly willing to watch their regional partner pilots suffer financiall while the main line pillots took the lion's share of of the pilot salaries allocated to the total ticket price that included portions of the flight to be flown on a regional aircraft and portions of the flight on a main line aircraft. When a passenger buys a ticket, the price includes the fees charged on both the regional portion of the flight and the portion flwon on a main line aoircraft. The solution for pilot salaries is as simple as the jet fuel prices. Jet fuel cost per gallon is the same for a main line aircraft as for a regional aircraft. Pilot salaries should be the same. It should not matter what the pilot is flying, the risk/reward is the same for both regional and main line aircraft. Simply divide the total ticket price by the total cost of equal pilot salaries. Pay pilots the same regardless of size of the equipment or number of passengers. A Captain on a regional aircraft has the same responsibility for keeping passengers safe as does a main line pilot. As long as the airline managent and pilot unions and main line pilots insist on taking the lion's share of the ticket price leaving bare bones for regional pilot salaries, the airline pilot community will be divided and fall. I always thought the main line management were using the low regional pilot salaries to prove that even the main line aircraft could be flown with low pilot salaries. I always thought it was only a matter of time before the low pilot salaries at regionals would filter up to the main line pilots. Main line pilots are not about to share their salaries with their regional pilot and fellow union members. Selfishness causes divisions. The natives get envious and revolt when observing the kings and queens and upper class taking the treaure of the country leaving the peasants nothing. One of the things that caused the recent revolt in the Ukraine was the President's palace and lifestyle while leaving the citizens in poverty. The revolt among regional pilots with 1,500+ hours is that they refuse to fly for poverty wages while the main line pilots take the lion's share of the pilot salaries built into the ticket price the passengers pay. Simply equalize pilot pay at regional and major airlines and the qualified, high time, pilots will return to the aviation industry instead of leaving aviation to work in other higher paid professions. Passengers simply do not care abut how their ticket prices are divided up and shared among pilots. Passengers want their pilots to be paid the same regardless of whether they are flying on a regional or main line aircraft. It's the main line pilots who are causing the regional pilot shortage by demanding the lion's share of the airline ticket price.

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matt
on February 28, 2014 - 2:03pm

U.S. GAO - Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots

Pretty much takes care of any "myth" of a pilot "shortage".

APS Texas's picture
APS Texas
on March 3, 2014 - 4:52pm

Though forecast for years, the almost overnight shortage of Regional Airline pilots seems surprising to some. This and other forums are addressing the causes and potential solutions thoroughly. The pilot supply is a serious and important issue, but there is another issue we should not lose sight of.

Much of the current situation was triggered by the crash of Colgan Air 3407 on February 12th, 2009 due to a loss of aircraft control. The resulting furor raised pilot minimum flight time requirements for second in command of Part 121 flight operations, and in changes to the training requirements for Airline Transport Pilots (ATPs) beginning on August 1st of this year. The increased flight time requirements would not have affected either of the pilots involved in the referenced accident since they both possessed flight time which exceeded the new minimums.

What would have potentially changed the outcome of that flight, and could have a lasting improvement in aviation safety going forward, is a requirement for Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) for Commercially Licensed pilots. UPRT will be an academic and simulator based requirement of the new ATP Certification Training Program. Unfortunately the cost of this new requirement only fuels the debate of pilot training costs vs. potential pilot income.

Randall Brooks

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Volunteer
on March 1, 2014 - 1:31pm

The above comment is spam attempting to capitalize on the Colgan disaster. The crew did not need "upset training " in an A-4; they needed basic flight training. And eight hours of quality rest before attempting the flight schedule that day.

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texas atp
on March 6, 2014 - 12:52pm

I disagree about the unwanted ads comment. The post didn't promote any business at all, only additional training that can help "every pilot". No business was brought up in the post, only common sense advice. As far as the Colgan remark, this is exactly what brought up the whole change to the rules, like it or not.

While there was more involved with this accident, if they would have had more advanced training they very likely could have had a different outcome. The lack of discipline and professionalism displayed by the crew didn't help either.

As far as rest goes, we as individuals have to share in the blame if we are not getting the needed rest. Quit making it easy for the airlines to exploit ourselves and just start turning down flights that we are in no shape to fly. Stop blaming everyone else and go find something else to do if it is so bad. Nobody forced any of us to choose this career.

Just my two cents.

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Volunteer
on March 8, 2014 - 8:18am

Actually the post DID try and hawk rides in the A-4. It was changed after my criticism and the hyperlink dropped. Look at the date postings of the messages. Ensuring you have well-trained, well-paid, and well-rested crews in the cockpit is certainly a responsibility of management. People like Roger Cohen are failing miserably in their jobs.

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