Pilot Shortage Turns to Crisis among Small Cargo Carriers

 - May 19, 2015, 9:41 AM
An Ameriflight Beech 1900C taxis at San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-SA) by James Willamor)

Members of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA) have felt the effects of the shortage of pilots even more acutely than their counterparts within the wider regional airline sector, as qualified applicants for cockpit vacancies among Part 135 and the smallest Part 121 carriers continue to dwindle in response to new regulatory requirements and other forces.

“We have a serious crisis going on in our industry,” said RACCA chairman and Empire Airlines CEO Tim Komberec during the group’s spring conference held recently in Phoenix. “There’s much debate about the pilot shortage in the United States and in the world, but there is absolutely no doubt that at our level where we perform, where we recruit pilots from and where we are on the food chain, we have an extremely serious problem and it has taken on crisis proportions. And the thing that is so worrisome is it’s going to affect all of us, not only the operators, not only our customers, but our members. We need to see if we can collectively find ways to find some solutions to help what’s going on.”

One of those solutions must center on encouraging more young people to join the profession, stressed Dr. Mark Taylor, one of the featured speakers at the conference. Taylor explained the key differences between baby boomer audience members and members of the young “generation next,” who populate the future pilot pipeline. “Boomers are retiring,” he said. “Next is all that is left. We’re leaving great jobs and we’re begging you to take our jobs. If you will learn to work with the ‘nexters,’ you will own the world.”

Taylor’s presentation underscored an issue that some RACCA members mentioned to AIN, that current new-hire pilots require far more training before they can begin flying.

Cargo-carrier Ameriflight has found that many new-hire pilots require additional training, often another week’s worth. “The quality of pilot candidates has degraded to where we have to completely change our training program,” said Ameriflight president Andrew Lotter. “We have to do remedial training. Situational awareness and IFR proficiency is where they’re deficient.”

Ameriflight operates 220 airplanes, including 50 Caravans from the purchase of Wiggins Airways last year. “The shortage hit us in August 2013,” he said. Back then, the company used to lose about five pilots a month, but the number suddenly jumped to 13 to 15 and stayed there. “We couldn’t catch up,” he said.

To stem the flow, Ameriflight raised its pay rates by about 20 percent last November, and another increase took effect recently. A senior Embraer EMB-120 captain now makes $89,000 per year, and a Piper Chieftain pilot $43,000 (up from $28,000).

Ameriflight has petitioned the FAA for an exemption to FAR 135.243c, which requires pilots flying IFR to have logged at least 1,200 hours of flight time. The exemption sought a reduction to 1,000 hours, but the industry has seen little movement for more than two years at the FAA other than a recent request for more information.

RACCA members appeared universally dismayed at the new ATP-Certification Training Program (CTP), a result of Public Law 111-216 enacted under pressure from families of victims of the Colgan Air 3407 accident. Under the new FAA regulations that resulted from that law, ATP applicants now require substantially more training, including 10 hours of simulator training, six of which must occur in a level-C full-flight simulator. Not only did the law raise the cost of obtaining the ATP, but new requirements for ATP instructors mandate that they have at least two years of air carrier experience. The new standards make it harder for operators to find pilots with ATPs and also represent a significant obstacle for pilots trying to build time to reach the minimum 1,500 hours to quality for the license.

John Duncan, director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, attended the entire RACCA conference and tried to assuage some of the members’ concerns. He assured members that the FAA is working on rulemaking that would allow time-building pilots to log legitimate flight time in the right seat of a twin-engine airplane that normally needs a single pilot. “The process takes some time,” he said. “We are pushing that to the top.” As for the Ameriflight exemption to lower the number of hours required to fly as pilot-in-command under IFR, he added, “we’re working that as well. We understand the urgency.” Flooded with unmanned aircraft exemption requests, the FAA has become overwhelmed, he indicated. “Our resources are strained,” said Duncan.


No shortage, no crises, just ridiculous terms and conditions that doesn't even attract candidates with the bare minimum required experience. You want to stop the "crises"? Offer proper terms and conditions and real career opportunities. Simple as that.

I completely agree! Chieftains and Caravans do not require an ATP to fly pt 135 as PIC. Only type rated aircraft do only if flying passengers, not cargo.

Am I reading this right? "Our pilot candidates are worse than we've ever hired, AND we want the FAA to let us lower our hiring standards." This article neatly summarizes the airline industry approach to safety vs. profits. We reached this point because Congress took away the right to strike from airline unions. This gave airlines complete power to set worker pay and conditions. They set standards so low pilots became dangerously overworked and undertrained, causing crashes, and so underpaid, young people stopped entering the profession. So now we have few young people to hire, and the airlines are predictably begging for lower safety standards, rather than making the profession desirable enough to attract workers.

Yes this is a crisis, and yes Congress will probably give in to lobbying and let the FAA lower safety standards again. At some point, does the industry ever stop and think about the incredible responsibility they have to the flying public, to keep them safe? Do they ever stop and look at the incredible gifts and freedoms they have been given, and think they should be building a strong and reliable airline system for now and the future? Or does it always have to be about profits? We are heading toward a situation that can only lead back to re-regulation.

Mr. Thurber, I respectfully disagree with your article and believe it to be misleading, as does every other commenter on here. Allow me to elaborate and then please consider writing a worthwhile article addressing the REAL problem. I am coming from 15 years in the industry, have worked at numerous small and regional carriers including Ameriflight and now fly for a major part 121 carrier.

Basic economics teaches us about supply and demand. Basic marketplace and employment theory teaches us higher wages beget better, more qualified employees. Google, SW/United/Delta/American all have ZERO PROBLEMS finding qualified skilled labor to fill their ranks. Now I realize we are talking about regional carriers, but this is all part of the same system.

My employer pays below industry standard for the airframe I fly, yet accepts less than 2% of their applicants. Qualified, current and skilled applicants. Think about this...IT'S LITERALLY EASIER TO GET INTO STANFORD. If demand for skilled labor is high, like the high turnover/low pay industry of regional airlines, then supply will increase - IF wages are comparable to similar industries requiring a similar amount of school or qualification. These things being equal, there will be no shortage of applicants. $17K-20K per year regional airline pay living in high cost cities such as San Francisco or New York is below the poverty line, yet we expect these professionals to still knock employers doors down with excitement.

A real pilot shortage IS happening right now, in Asia. There, carriers select good students showing technical aptitude, send them to the US, PAY FOR THEIR TRAINING AND GUARANTEE THEM A GOOD PAYING JOB. This is what a shortage looks like.

In two months, Asian pilots fresh out of training make more than the average US regional pilot with equivalent experience makes in a year. Here is your problem. Fair pay for professional skilled labor is the answer. If the profession is worth getting into, people will go. If it pays less than McDonald's, they will not. Basic, simple economics. I do not feel bad for these carriers and I hope Congress does not bend to their bottom feeder lobbying.

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