Big pilot shortage hits regional carriers

  • The Dallas Morning News
  • Thursday, April 24, 2014 3:55pm
  • Business

Pedro Fabregas did the math, and the math wasn’t good.

Fabregas, president and chief executive of Envoy Air Inc., says Envoy hired about 52 pilots in the first quarter. But 20 pilots were moving each month to parent American Airlines, and 22 to 24 were leaving for other jobs or for other reasons.

“You can see the deficit there,” Fabregas said recently.

Envoy, formerly known as American Eagle Airlines Inc., isn’t the only regional carrier having trouble with pilot math. For a combination of reasons, regional carriers are having a tougher time finding enough qualified pilots to keep their cockpits manned.

“I think it is a very, very real issue,” aviation consultant Bill Swelbar said. He noted that some regional carriers have already had to park airplanes because they don’t have enough pilots and can’t hire enough replacements.

“This all speaks to an industry that is concerned about having sufficient bodies to fly the schedule that’s in the computer today,” said Swelbar, executive vice president of InterVistas Consulting LLC.

He led a study that projected that the four largest U.S. carriers, American Airlines Inc., United Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., will need 14,000 pilots by 2022 just to replace pilots hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65.

Regional carriers as a group currently employ about 18,000 pilots. And regional carriers are the primary source of candidates for pilot jobs at the mainline carriers.

Another consulting firm, Flightpath Economics Inc., looked at the number of retirements at the mainline carriers, including US Airways Inc. as part of American, and predicted nearly 18,000 mandatory retirements through 2022.

“Over the next eight years, the largest network carriers will retire approximately 50 percent of their pilots, resulting in a hiring frenzy that will extract pilots currently flying in the cockpits of lower-paid regional airline affiliates,” Flightpath said in its study.

That could lead to a pilot crisis at the regionals. Some have already had to reduce service.

Since Jan. 1, Great Lakes Airlines has stopped service to 14 small cities in eight states, places like Hays, Kan., and Jamestown, N.D. In its annual report filed April 9, the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based airline said it didn’t have enough pilots to support the service.

In fact, Great Lakes cited the pilot shortage as a primary reason that doubts have been raised about its ability to continue operating.

On April 9, Silver Airways Inc., a small carrier based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., cited a “nationwide shortage of regional airline pilots” as a primary reason for its decision to stop service between Atlanta and five Southern cities.

Silver had been offering $6,000 hiring bonuses to attract first officers. On April 3, it increased the bonus to $12,000.

One of the largest regional airlines, Republic Airlines Inc., blamed a shortage of pilots earlier this year for its decision not to seek renewal of contracts to fly 27 Embraer jets for mainline partners American and United when those contracts expire this year.

In February, United announced a pull-down of service at its Cleveland hub. One reason cited was that regional partner ExpressJet Airlines Inc. had difficulty finding enough pilots to operate its flights there.

Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen said his members are more important than ever as they fly nearly half of the scheduled flights in the United States.

“But I must say the single thing that has thrown not just sand in the gears but has the potential of dramatically reducing that footprint is the issue of having enough pilots to fly the schedules,” he said.

While the need to replace retiring pilots was already going to be a problem in coming years, Cohen and others said two factors have suddenly brought the issue to the forefront:

First, the federal government began requiring pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time before joining an air carrier. Before Aug. 1, 2013, the requirement was 250 hours.

Second, new federal restrictions enacted in January on flight time and duty time increased the number of pilots needed to fly the same airline schedules as before.

Speaking to industry analysts in February, Republic Air Holdings Inc. CEO Bryan Bedford said the 1,500-hour rule and the pilot duty limits “are adding new crew resource challenges for all regional airlines.”

Mainline carriers haven’t had any problem. They’ve been draining the regional carriers. It’s the regional carriers that have had to deal with getting enough qualified pilots in the door.

The new federal rules put up a roadblock for college students wanting to be pilots, said Cohen and Swelbar, the aviation consultant. They have spent huge amounts of money to graduate as pilots. Now they have to pay for more expensive flying time to meet the 1,500-hour rule.

“It used to be I could go to a four-year university and come out with 300 to 400 hours and be able to move immediately and take a job with a regional airline,” Swelbar said.

Unions representing pilots say the industry would lure enough pilots if carriers would pay them more.

With starting pay for first officers at $22,000 to $23,000, new pilots start out at low levels after spending a small fortune to get through school and get their necessary licenses.

Pilots at three carriers — Envoy, Republic and ExpressJet — have rejected new contracts recently. Envoy’s parent company, American Airlines Group Inc., had insisted on cost-cutting contracts as a condition for Envoy to get larger jets.

Last week, pilots union leaders from those three carriers and 10 other regional airlines signed a joint pact not to accept concessionary contracts and allow managements to play one union against another.

“With the shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for substandard wages and inadequate benefits at fee-for-departure carriers, the time is now for true cooperation,” the union leaders stated in their communique.

Cohen, head of the airline trade group, expressed doubt that a higher starting wage would help in the face of the 1,500-hour limit.

“It doesn’t matter if you triple the starting salary tomorrow,” he said. “That’s still not going to create one more person that’s got 1,500 hours tomorrow.”

The 1,500-hour rule, as well as the duty-time rule and heightened requirements for training, stem largely from a Colgan Air Inc. crash on approach to Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009. There was evidence that pilot errors and fatigue played big roles. For that reason, the rule probably won’t be changed.

“On the political side, it’s untouchable,” Swelbar said.

He expects more effects of the pilot shortage to show up in airline schedules next fall and winter, but he thinks the industry will mitigate the impact for a few years. He sees 2017 as the year when a lack of cockpit crews could force carriers to significantly reduce service to the smaller, less profitable cities in their networks.

“I don’t think we’re going to do much in this space until airports en masse begin to go dark,” Swelbar said. “That’s when it hits home.”

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