The front line of a pilot shortage

Published: 20 Sep 2016

US regional carriers find themselves at the sharp end of the increasing struggle to secure enough pilots to fill their ranks, a challenge which is already impacting the sector's ability to grow.

The airlines, through their Washington-based trade group, are now pursuing regulatory channels to ease what they call a “pilot shortage”, pushing a proposal that would modify a controversial 2013 rule that requires new pilots to have 1,500h of flight time.

At the same time, the USA’s top pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) continues to push back, insisting a shortage of pay – not stricter pilot qualifications – is ultimately to blame for hiring difficulties.

Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association trade group, tells FlightGlobal: “It’s pretty impossible to deny that we have a real and worsening pilot shortage. Right now, regional airlines are on the front line of this problem, but in a few short years this is going to be everybody’s problem.”

Sami Teittinen, chief executive of Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways, says the 1,500h rule has “absolutely” caused hiring difficulties.

“The hiring pool continues to shrink. It’s hard to find pilots with 1,500h,” he says. “I am a much stronger supporter of less hours [with] more-structured training programmes.”

The RAA’s Black says the pilot shortage has loomed for years, but until recently was mitigated by factors including the industry pull-back following the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the most recent economic recession.

In addition, in 2007 the US Congress passed a law advancing the commercial pilot minimum retirement age to 65 from 60, further delaying the problem, she says.

But times have changed.

Now airlines are expanding, and veteran pilots are increasingly reaching the cut-off age, notes the RAA, which represents most large US regional airlines.

Teittinen says “everyone is hiring rapidly”, including the major airlines. Silver’s prime challenge is coping with rapid turnover, he says, noting that pilots often leave the airline after as little as three years for jobs at the major carriers. In the past, pilots might work several years as first officers, then three or four years as captains before making the transition, he says.

The RAA cites a 2016 study from the University of North Dakota showing that between 1,000 and 3,000 pilots a year will retire from US mainline carriers in the next 10 years, with some 20,000 pilots having hit retirement age by 2024.

The Pilot Supply Forecast says that between now and 2020, major airlines will need to hire some 18,600 pilots – roughly the same number as is currently employed by US regional airlines, the RAA notes.

The shortage in 2016 stands at only a few hundred pilots, but, even including projected new recruits, the US airline industry will be short about 1,250 pilots annually by 2020 and nearly 2,000 pilots annually by 2023, the North Dakota study shows.

By 2026, the industry will be short, cumulatively, more than 14,000 pilots, according to the report.

Although the shortage will affect the entire industry, it will initially affect regional airlines, where rookie pilots typically gain experience before transitioning to major carriers, Black notes.

She says that last year RAA member airlines hired just 63% of the roughly 6,000 pilots they had hoped to recruit.

The RAA says the shortage has caused, and could continue to cause, air service reductions at US airports. It notes that some 150 US markets lost seats and departures in recent years, with 27 communities losing all scheduled air service.

Some regional carriers have in recent months called attention to hiring bonuses and other programmes designed to attract recruits.

In June American Airlines’ three wholly owned subsidiaries – Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines – announced they would pay $15,000 bonuses to newly hired pilots and $5,000 to employees who refer new pilots.

PSA also pays first officers a bonus of $2,500 quarterly, up to $20,000, until they advance to the captain’s seat.

Trans States Airlines also this year announced a new internship programme designed to help students transition to jobs at the carrier. The company will also pay interns up to $10,000 in tuition reimbursement, the company said.

“The pilot shortage is the most serious issue facing our company today,” the airline says. “It has led us to ground aircraft and discontinue service in some markets.”

The carrier adds that interest in the internship programme has been “encouraging”, but says interns have still not accumulated the flight time needed for airline service.

“We have also increased starting pay for our pilots to among the highest in the regional airline industry,” Trans States says. “However, even with these incentives, we’re still faced with a very difficult recruiting environment.”

In May another carrier, Republic Airways, announced a hiring partnership with the Ohio State University, calling the agreement and similar arrangements with other universities “crucial for our company in combatting the serious pilot shortage”.

For its part Silver hopes a new “pilot hiring partnership” with Frontier Airlines, announced in June, will attract new recruits. The carrier is also finalising an agreement under which it will reimburse students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for flight training costs if they become Silver pilots, Teittinen says.

To read the full analysis go to the October issue of Flight Airline Business

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