While the Regional Airline Association and regional airline management point to new rules governing flight time experience for first officers as the primary reason for a pilot shortage that has resulted in a loss of service to several U.S. communities, pilots contend the airlines have made their own mess by creating a business model predicated on breadline wages for cockpit crew. The Air Line Pilots Association, for one, argues that there’s no shortage of pilots, only a shortage of pilots willing to fly for substandard wages and inadequate benefits.
ALPA points to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to support its position. In it, the GAO references data to indicate that a large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand. However, the report also found that it remains unclear whether or not those pilots would be willing to work for the wages now on offer.
Historical labor market data from 2000 through 2012 provide mixed evidence as to whether there really is an airline pilot shortage, according to the GAO. The unemployment rate for the pilot occupation–a key indicator for a shortage–averaged lower than for the economy as a whole, said the report. However, wage earnings and employment didn’t correlate with the existence of a shortage, as data for both indicators showed decreases over the period, it added.
“As airlines have started hiring to address growth demands and attrition, 11 of the 12 regional airlines we interviewed reported difficulties filling entry-level first-officer vacancies,” said the GAO. “Mainline airlines, since they hire experienced pilots largely from regional airlines, have not reported similar difficulties, although mainline airline representatives expressed concerns that entry-level hiring problems could affect the ability of their regional partners to provide service to some locations.”
During the month of February alone, three regional airlines announced plans to curtail service and attributed their decisions directly to a pilot shortage. (See article on page XX.) Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Silver Airways 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 suspended service on February 1 from Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; Ironwood, Mich; and Thief River Falls, Minn., blaming the decision on “the severe industry-wide pilot shortage and its relatively acute impact on Great Lakes,” according to a company statement. Finally, Indianapolis-based Republic Airways said it will remove 27 of 41 Embraer ERJ-140s from service this spring; the airline flies 15 of the 27 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.
Sufficient Labor Force Available
But while the airlines complain about the lack of qualified pilot applicants, ALPA insists that the numbers show otherwise. The union points to statistics showing that while there were 72,000 pilot jobs in 2012, 137,658 active pilots under the age of 65 and with first-class medical certificates held ATP certificates on January 30. Another 105,000 pilots who could potentially qualify for an ATP hold instrument ratings and commercial certificates, it added.
“There is a quantifiable shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry, not a shortage of pilots who are capable and certified to fly the airlines’ equipment,” ALPA asserts in a statement. “According to ALPA’s figures, which vary from the GAO’s just slightly, the average starting salary for new first officers in the regional airline industry is only $22,400, which compares very poorly with the starting salaries of other fields for which university aviation program graduates are qualified to enter…”
Examples of positions ALPA cites as appropriate for such degrees include that of test engineer, which, it said, pays an average starting salary of $52,500, operations manager at $55,000 and second lieutenant pilot in the Air Force at $53,616 in salary and allowances.
ALPA asserts that the regional airline industry did not adequately prepare for today’s pilot hiring environment. Congress introduced the legislation that would eventually require 1,500 hours of flying experience and an ATP for new-hire first officers five years ago, the association contends, further noting that six years ago the industry knew that a large number of pilots would reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 around this time.
“Although some within the airline industry blame the legislation and resulting FAA airline pilot qualifications and training rules for a pilot shortage, the airline industry actually helped craft those rules and supported their passage,” according to ALPA.