By Luc Olinga
New York (AFP) - Mid-sized and regional airlines in the US are suffering from a pilot shortage that could threaten the health of the broader US aviation industry.
Some regional carriers have trimmed about five percent of their flights, cuts that have hit smaller airports, such as in Redding, California, or Erie, Pennsylvania.
The staffing crunch could also constrain traffic for larger companies like United Airlines and Delta Air Lines that depend on the mid-sized companies to serve rural consumers and feed customers into their networks.
"It's becoming a crisis at some carriers, resulting in the cancellation of flights and other serious disruptions," said Patrick Smith, a pilot who runs "Ask the Pilot," an aviation blog.
Republic Airways, which operates flights for Delta, United and American Airlines, filed for bankruptcy protection last month, citing the labor crunch.
"We've attempted to restructure the obligations on our out-of-favor aircraft -– made so by a nationwide pilot shortage –- and to increase our revenues," said Bryan Bedford, chief executive officer of Republic Airways.
"It's become clear that this process has reached an impasse and that any further delay would unnecessarily waste valuable resources of the enterprise."
Things at Republic came to a head last July, when the airline acknowledged cutting four percent of its flights due to a dearth of pilots. Delta subsequently filed suit against Republic, alleging breach of contract.
Mesa Airlines and Silver Airways, two regional carriers that have been associated with the problem, said Monday their canceled flights were due to bad weather, not a labor shortage.
- Pay gap -
Aviation industry insiders cite a number of factors for the drop-off in pilots: longer working hours, contentious relations with management, fewer job protections and industry turnover with the expected retirement of some 18,000 pilots through 2022.
But the biggest factor is compensation.
Regional carriers pay pilots an annual average of $27,350, according to Paul Ryder, ALPA Resource Coordinator. That compares with an annual salary of $103,390 at large airlines, according to US Labor Department data.
Aspiring pilots must pay between $150,000 to $200,00 to obtain their license, Ryder said.
Three years ago, US regulators stiffened the requirements on pilots following a 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York, that killed 49 people.
Commercial pilots must now have 1,500 hours of flight time before qualifying for their pilot's license, compared with just 250 prior to the rule shift. (PCC Edit: It is our understanding that the 1500 hours is required to fly for an airline, not, as the article states, to qualify for a license.)
Adding to that burden is a shift in the broader aviation industry as regional flying has grown. Up-and-coming pilots once viewed the regional carriers as a stepping-stone to a job with a bigger company, said Smith.
"Today, the regional sector accounts for half or more of all flying, and pilots are realizing that a job with a regional often means an entire... career with a regional," Smith said.
"Fewer pilots are willing to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars into their training and education for a career with such a limited return on investment, in what has historically been a very unstable industry."
Steps taken by some regional carriers include boosting compensation, such as offering a bonus to qualified pilots of $80,000 spread out over four years, said industry consultant Kit Darby.
Companies are also granting bonuses of $500, $1,000 or $1,500 for pilot referrals, Darby said.
"An airline that wants to be able to recruit new pilots and to retain its current pilots needs to offer reasonable compensation, fair worklife balance and some career path with stability," said pilot Ryder.
"An airline that does not offer that typically has seen challenges in attracting employees."