Pilot Shortage Hitting Home at Racca Member Airlines

 - May 23, 2015, 12:40 PM
For carriers seeking pilots “it has gone from a buyer’s to a seller’s market. As an industry, we’re not used to that,” Matt Barton of Flightpath Economics told attendees at the Racca convention. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

The 2015 Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (Racca) spring conference in Phoenix opened April 28 on a somber note as members aired concerns about a tangible shortage of pilots affecting their operations. Racca’s membership comprises both Part 135 and 121 operators, some of which fly passengers as well as cargo. Traditionally, Racca member companies act as a stepping-stone for pilots building flight time to apply to larger airlines, but regulatory and other circumstances have vastly thinned the flow of pilots in the pipeline to Racca members.

“We have a serious crisis going on in our industry,” said Racca chairman Tim Komberec and Empire Airlines president and CEO, addressing the opening session at the conference, which was attended by more than 300 people. “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. We need to see if we can collectively find ways to find solutions to help fix what’s going on.”

An interesting keynote followed, given by Dr. Mark Taylor, who 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 generation next to take our jobs. If you will learn to work with the nexters, you will own the world.”

Too few nexters are learning to fly and too few want pilot careers, however, and Racca member companies will have to change hiring practices to adapt to new realities. Taylor’s hiring advice:

• Super-fast hiring, because well qualified candidates are in high demand. This can mean hiring for credentials and then developing employees’ skills, rather than trying to find someone who fits the job description precisely.

• Nexters won’t hesitate to quit a job they don’t like, he explained, suggesting a strategy of deferring rewards to keep them around longer. A bonus six months after the hire date is one such strategy. It’s also important to “get them involved quickly,” he said.

• Racca members that are able to fly two-pilot operations within their regulatory structure have an advantage here as they can hire lower-time pilots and help them gain valuable experience.

• A positive atmosphere is essential, with plenty of praise and minimal criticism. Company leaders also need to be extraordinarily careful to avoid any hint of sexism, racism or homophobia. “It will run these folks off in a heartbeat,” he said.

• Nexters need lots of supervision, but it can be effective to train one then have that person train his or her peers. “You only have to socialize one,” he joked.

• Finally, he concluded, “Recognize that you need them.”

Education, Outreach and Opportunities

Taylor’s presentation underscored an issue that some Racca members mentioned to AIN: 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.”

Empire Airlines, which operates under both Part 135 (Cessna Caravans for FedEx) and Part 121 (ATR 42s and 72s for cargo and passengers), is experiencing the same new-hire problem, according to Richard Mills, director of quality assurance. “[Additional training] becomes normal now,” he said. “And it ups the costs.” Empire has found that many applicants have the required pilot certificates and logged time, but they worked for many years in non-flying careers and now see an opportunity to fly for a living.

“Our biggest challenge is the pilot shortage,” said Ameriflight’s Lotter. The company operates 220 airplanes, among them 50 Caravans that came with the purchase of Wiggins Airways last year, Piper Navajo Chieftain piston twins and Embraer EMB-120 Brasilias and Beech 99s. “The shortage hit us in August 2013,” he said. Back then, the company used to lose 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 approximately 20 percent last November and added another increase recently. A senior Brasilia captain now makes $89,000 per year, and a Chieftain pilot $43,000 (up from $28,000). Ameriflight also has a flow-through program with Allegiant Air.

Ameriflight has petitioned the FAA for an exemption to FAR 135.243c, which requires pilots flying IFR to have at least 1,200 hours of flight time. The exemption sought a reduction to 1,000 hours with an equivalent level of safety, but the request has been sitting at the FAA for more than two years, with no sign of movement other than a recent request for more information.

Like most Part 135 cargo carriers, Ameriflight operates its aircraft single-pilot, so there are few opportunities for right-seat pilots to log any time. Cape Air, predominantly a passenger-carrying Part 135 operator, offers copilots loggable right-seat time when an autopilot is inoperative and two pilots are required. Cape Air has tackled the pilot shortage with an aggressive set of programs that have shown some success. Cape Air operates 84 Cessna 402s and (for company purposes) one 414, four Britten-Norman Islanders, two ATR 42s and two Caravans on floats. The ATRs serve the Micronesia market and operate under Part 121, and the other aircraft are flown under Part 135. The company employs 173 pilots.

Cape Air’s attrition rate for captains accelerated rapidly starting in 2012, when it was 31 percent (a loss of 41 captains). That number has now reached 50 percent (68 captains). “We are in a crisis with the pilot supply issue,” said Cape Air president Linda Markham, who is also chairman of the Regional Airline Association. “The applicant pool has really dwindled.” In 2013 Cape Air received applications from 1,051 pilots. That number dropped to 642 last year, and this year’s month-by-month numbers are even lower. Fifty captain jobs were offered in 2013 and 35 pilots who showed up for class. Last year 30 jobs were offered and 22 pilots showed up. Through early April, three pilots had shown up for five captain jobs.

Every day, Cape Air has to ground airplanes for lack of pilots. Sometimes management pilots are tapped to fly revenue trips, pulling them away from important initial and recurrency training tasks.

To counter the high attrition rate and scarcity of new hires, Cape Air has instituted a number of programs: a gateway to JetBlue; hiring retired Part 121 pilots who can still fly under Part 135 (“Grey Gulls”) as well as part-time pilots; offering non-pilot employees incentives to become pilots and to help pay for flight time; sponsoring foreign pilots; reaching out to local schools to educate youth about aviation opportunities; and forgivable loans for pilots who commit to fly for Cape Air. So far, JetBlue has hired 22 captains through the Cape Air gateway program, which works with students at seven aviation universities. There are 246 pilots in the gateway system now, Markham said, and “that pathway has proved to be successful.”

A presentation by Matt Barton of Flightpath Economics underscored the problems facing Racca members. Flightpath surveyed 30 air carriers and found that half of them “expect trouble finding pilots this year.” Many of those carriers are closing routes and grounding airplanes, he said, and for carriers seeking pilots “it has gone from a buyer’s to a seller’s market. As an industry, we’re not used to that.” Further, most Racca members say they expect diminishing quality of pilot applicants and constrained operations attributable to the shortage.

While many regional air carriers are paying hiring bonuses, this strategy achieves no long-term benefit, instead creating an arms race between bonus-paying operators. “None of this stuff is producing pilots,” he said. “We’re all drawing from the same diminishing pool.”

Racca members are 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 be in a level-C full-flight simulator. Not only did that 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. These new standards are making it harder for operators to find pilots with ATPs and also present a significant obstacle for pilots trying to build time to reach the minimum 1,500 hours to quality for the ATP. (There are lower thresholds for certain military and university-trained pilots.)

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 agency 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.” The exemption delay can be traced in part, Duncan said, to the flood of unmanned-aircraft exemption requests filed with the agency. “Our resources are strained,” he said. Unfortunately, the FAA’s hands are tied when it comes to the new ATP-CTP requirements. “The law would have to change,” he added. (It is possible this flood might subside more quickly now that the FAA has issued an interim policy to accelerate UAS authorizations.)

Duncan did offer some advice to Racca members who are dealing with local FAA inspector issues and often lengthy delays at the FSDO level. He recognizes that some FAA personnel “have strong opinions and operate independently” and, when questioned by an operator, won’t consult with FAA peers or leadership. When this happens, Duncan recommends that the operator politely say, “I disagree for these reasons. Is there someone else I can talk to?” He also suggested tapping the expertise of Racca as well as pushing the issue up the FAA ladder, all the way to his office if necessary. “I can’t fix problems unless I know about them,” he concluded.


"Traditionally, Racca member companies act as a stepping-stone for pilots building flight time to apply to larger airlines, but regulatory and other circumstances have vastly thinned the flow of pilots in the pipeline to Racca members."

This is the lie they're all selling to media when in fact it's quite simple. You need experience, you pay for experience. Offer reasonable salaries and career opportunities and you will fill your empty seats.

"We need to see if we can collectively find ways to find solutions to help fix what’s going on.”

Dear RACCA members, look no further for solutions. Pay reasonable salaries that people can actually feed their families with and you will be able to "fix what's going on".

Dr Taylor's "hiring advice" brings up interesting points that can be summarised easily. Companies need to start taking care of their employees and understand that without motivated and happy employees, all pulling the company in the same direction, your company will not survive. Seems like pretty basic people management to me but is obviously way above my pay grade...

amwajtommy's picture

Their previous practices of low pay, intimidation of pilots to operate under questionable conditions has finally come home to roost, and now they cry foul...

hcier1's picture

This is basic business. It is as simple as supply and demand. Develop demand by sufficient wages and quality of work/live balance, and you will find a demand of pilots to work. There are thousands of pilots out of work, who would love to fly. Supply them a reasonable living and you will get them.

Many businesses in aviation have rested on their laurels and gotten away with minimizing pilot costs. They have done so leaning on the argument that the pilot must pay dues. The trouble is, there is a point where a pilot, will find more reward elsewhere, if the field doesn't provide wages and quality of life. It is that simple.

Jimbo's picture

If you think of CHEAP pilots as being kind of like a drug for small air carriers, this conference was like a bunch of addicts climbing the walls screaming for another fix. I can only imagine how hard it must be, particularly after this past DECADE of screwed pilots willing to accept humiliating wages. Now the party is over and the unwelcome light of day shines through the window, into the bloodshot eyes of CEO's strung-out on cockpit slavery like southern plantation owners enjoying cheap cotton in the 1850's. Oddly enough, all this crying comes at exactly the time that fuel prices have dropped. Did you really think you could have both a drop in fuel expenses AND a stable flow of CHEAP pilots? Wow, that really is.... a trip.

This is just the first level of corporate whining to the government agencies. After the alleged pilot shortage goes mainstream, the next step is to demand that cargo only 'two pilot airplanes' be re certified for one pilot and redundant autopilots as the only cure for a lack of qualified aviators.