Regional Pilot Shortage Hits Hard


A regional jet under the setting sun at Dulles

The idea of a looming pilot shortage is a myth.

That is the message which came out of the Boyd Group International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas earlier this month. Sitting on a panel Chuck Howell, CEO of Great Lakes Airways and Jeff Jones, VP of Strategic Planning for Republic Airways made that point very clear. The regional pilot shortage is not looming; it is here right now and it is going to get worse in a hurry.

Both executives, each representing a slightly different portion of the regional airline industry, were spectacularly blunt about the challenges they face to recruit, train and retain qualified and competent candidates as pilots. And, while the challenges are slightly different, there is also some concern that the ultimate result is that it is not only the regional carriers which will be affected; it could very quickly scale up into the mainline carriers as well.

For Great Lakes the solution was more of a stop-gap approach. The company removed 10 seats from its Beechcraft 1900 aircraft to drop the passenger count below 10 and change the FAA regulations under which the carrier operates. This allows it to hire pilots with less experience and train them up to the 1500 hour minimum necessary for operating larger aircraft. Howell notes that this has worked, at least in the short term but also that “Outside of EAS it is not a business model that is long-term sustainable.”

A regional jet under the setting sun at Dulles
A regional jet under the setting sun at Dulles

And the company struggles to retain those pilots they’ve invested in training. Howell explained that the “rigor and the time and the money involved in taking that pilot from day 1 and putting them on the flight line that they start actually carrying passengers is a major investment” which pays off: the end result is well trained pilots. But, “because they’re well trained everyone else in the industry wants them.” Great Lakes is a feeder in to the larger regional operators just as those airlines feed the mainline carriers. And as the number of available pilots dries up at the bottom tiers the upper levels will feel pressure.

Jones has a similar view of the industry, though Republic is one rung about Great Lakes in the pilot hierarchy. Much like Howell he recognizes that the costs of becoming a qualified pilot are far outstripping the pay scale those pilots see coming in to the industry. And he believes that the obligation to act on that front is shared with the mainline carriers:

Our whole basis of dealing with the [mainline] partners that we have is based on low profit margins which are based on long-held rates. The next step for us is dealing with our major partners in how can we get down to help share in the right costs, raising the starting pay enough that [young pilots] can see their student loans being paid in the long run?

Yes, it would seem that the answer is easy: Just pay more. But it may be too late for that to be an effective solution to head off the shortage. Renegotiating contracts is far from a trivial task and, even if it happened quickly. Current growth at regional operators often comes in the form of pilots leaving other regional operators. The true growth is not sufficient to replace the pilots moving up to the mainline carriers.

The pipeline to get a sufficient number of pilots to the minimum hour requirements is compressing and these executives question whether enough pilots can be trained to 1500 hours quickly enough. As Howell opined:

Quantity of time does not mean quality of time. A kid banner-towing getting 1500 hours is not going to have the same skill set as a kid flying in all-weather conditions and complex equipment.

How do you get that time? There is nothing scalable right now in the industry for the volume [needed].

Ultimately the challenge is very real. Republic Airways has already reported to its mainline carriers that it may fail to operate schedules as promised. Great Lakes is able to survive for now, but that may not be a plan which is viable long-term. And, in the middle of it all are the consumers – and airlines – insisting on lowering costs. It is a very real challenge and the tipping point may have already passed, even if we have not really seen it yet.

 

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

13 Comments

    1. Correct…the pay sucks. That’s a big part of the problem. Even when Republic tried to give its pilots a raise (outside of its contract) the Union rejected the raise and filed a lawsuit to block it, hoping to give it more negotiating power in the contract standoff. But until Republic (or other regionals) can renegotiate with the mainline operators there is not much wiggle room. And it is not like the mainline carriers are looking for ways to spend more on regional ops these days.

      1. Good post. Also worth noting that regionals’ executives are reluctant to discuss the starting pay rates, with most assuming they will never be able to wring much more from the mainline carriers. It will be interesting to see when that discussion actually comes, as an inability to fly the schedules shrinks small-market capacity past the point DL, AA and UA want to see it go.

  1. Meh … the FAA estimates that there are almost 600,000 active pilots in the United States; however, only about 100,000 of them fly for a living. I’m one of the other 500,000 pilots who love flying but aren’t willing to take the massive pay cut that would be necessary to work for an airline. If the pay and working conditions improved, the pool of potential candidates would increase dramatically. Eventually the regional airline business model will catch up to the new reality, but we’ll almost certainly see a wave of bankruptcies before we get there.

    1. How many of those 500,000 have 1500 hours or are qualified to be on the larger planes which need pilots? I don’t believe the pool is nearly as large.

      I’m also not so convinced that a few bankruptcies are going to solve the problem. They may make things worse. A Ch11 reorg doesn’t raise the pay, doesn’t solve the 1500 hour challenge and doesn’t instantly rebuild the pipeline of future pilots in training. And a Ch7 is even worse.

    2. Low entry pay has been part of the airline pilot career track since the early days of airlines. In the ’90s aspiring airline pilots still flew night freight in single-engine props, flew banner tows, hauled gliders and skydivers to altitude. They flew for free, or even paid to fly in light twin commuter aircraft. Yes young pilots, “pay-to-fly” was a real thing. They did it because being an airline pilot was a great career, prestigious, even glamorous. Or so they thought, mostly they based their beliefs on stories from long ago. Young pilots lived in poverty for many years to get the thousands of hours needed to even apply at any airline back then. Yes, I said thousands. Before the mid/late ’90s, regional airlines didn’t really exist, and the major airlines required thousands of hours to even apply for a pilot job.

      So why won’t young people stick it out in poverty like they used to? Well, the career sucks. Most airline pilots I know were barely making ends meet into middle-age, raising kids on public assistance, and they were the lucky ones. Very few airline pilots actually hit wide-body captain pay for more than a few years at the end of their careers. The pay is low, the prestige is gone, the quality of work life is poor, and they are gone from home more than half their days, including holidays and vacation seasons.

      If there are 500,000 pilots poised to enter the career, why aren’t they entering? Right now there is a growing surge of hiring going on, and that is always the best time to get hired in this seniority-based career. Everyone who has studied this career knows this and longs to get hired at a time like this, or wishes they had. A few years of poverty used to be worth the cost, obviously that is no longer the case for 500,000 active pilots, if they really exist.

      1. Low pay at the beginning has always been part of the play. But getting to the beginning used to be much easier. An extra 1250 hours is not cheap to fly. Generally that’s 2-3 more years of significant expense and minimal income.

        1. No, it was not easier. It was extremely difficult to get thousands of hours needed to apply at the major airlines in the ’90s, the ’80s, the ’70s, and on. Nearly all the pilots hired at the airlines back then were former military pilots, because it was so difficult and dangerous to get those hours as a civilian.

          It was a lot cheaper to get the license back then, but the years of poverty were still barely surmountable for most. I think today’s pilots never experienced it, and only heard stories of how glamorous it used to be. It was certainly not glamorous flying from airport to airport in snowstorms at night in a little Cessna, without GPS or ice protection, hauling checks and night freight. Banner towing was mind-numbingly boring, instructing was nearly fatal, nearly always. It was a soul-crushing existence, if you didn’t keep telling yourself how great that airline job was going to be.

          It went on for years, slowly working up to twin props in unscheduled and barely regulated air taxi. Broken equipment and flying in weather and situations you weren’t legal for was standard, if you wanted to keep progressing toward that airline job. Everyone wanted the pilots to push the limits, and they did.

          Most civilian pilots never did get to the airlines, they ended up settling down and taking a “real” job, starting their lives before it was too late.

          1. Making it to the “thousands of hours” at least meant getting paid something for 1250 more of those hours. Adding a couple years of unpaid/expensive air time to the equation has made things significantly harder and the up-side has not improved.

  2. My Great Lakes flight next month got cancelled. The agent on the phone sounded as frustrated as I did, saying that they don’t have enough pilots, so they cancel all the flights they can’t staff.

    Sucked for me, and I imagine for them

  3. I’ve been a CFII (certified flight instructor-instrument and airplane) since 1981. About that time, Frank Lorenzo bankrupted Continental simply to abrogate union contracts. It’s a cut-throat biz and while my kids-young adults- are interested in flying, I would never encourage them to go into such a crazy business model. Becoming a pilot for a major carrier-let alone a regional is a hard road to hoe. Part of the deal is that even if they make it in the right seat of a 737 for a major carrier, the pay stinks for many years, and they are away from home 1/2 the time.

    I love flying but there must be more stable careers out there that allow you to sleep in your own bed every night….

  4. The airline deregulation Act of 1978 allowed a lot more people to fly.
    However, there was a cost associated w/same. Mr. Lorenzo was working off a biz model that he presumably thought would result in profits in an industry that has the worst peaks/valleys of all. I think, though I’m not sure about this, that Warren Buffet once suggested that: “if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down”….and so it goes. I don’t understand it because one can go from NYC to LAX in 5-6 hours instead of 5-6 months and yet the aviation industry apparently has never made any long term money and I do not blame that bizarre fact on any one individual.

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