by Chris Kjelgaard
While the Air Line Pilots Association blames low pay and a lack of “career pathways” for the regional airlines’ struggle to recruit enough pilots, some airlines continue to point to the FAA's 2013 rule requiring 1,500 hours of flying time for airline pilots as the primary culprit. But whether or not one chooses to call the state of affairs a pilot shortage or something else, the cuts in air service to small and medium-size communities continue even as several regional airlines attempt to increase pay and benefits incentives.
Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines, detailed to AIN the circumstances his company faces, and its strategy for combating the “industry-wide problem” he blames the rule for creating. Before the 1,500-hour rule became effective, Mesa used to accept as first-officer candidates only about 20 percent of job applicants. Now, said Ornstein, “We can’t fill [training] classes and we are accepting 80 percent of applicants,” even though Mesa last month agreed a new four-year labor contract with its pilots.
Ornstein, the most outspoken critic of the 1,500-hour pilot qualification rule, said Mesa’s reduced first-officer intakes result from two factors: first, fewer people can afford the “$100,000” extra cost of accumulating the 1,250 additional flying hours the 2013 rule requires and, second, instead of promoting safety, the rule is producing the opposite effect. “It is making travel less safe,” said Ornstein, because pilots who manage to accumulate 1,500 flight hours, in whatever jobs they can, before coming to an airline have long forgotten the approved practices they learned in obtaining their private pilot licenses and additional ratings.
As a result, after the 1,500-hour rule passed, Mesa’s first-officer training classes eventually saw “a five-times-higher failure rate [in] the pool of pilots, from a proficiency viewpoint, and we were taking three times longer to train them than before,” said Ornstein. That prompted Mesa—and other large regional carriers—to cannibalize the pilot rosters of smaller regional airlines by offering their pilots large signing and retention bonuses and higher salaries. The circumstance has reduced the number of communities smaller carriers can serve because they had to park aircraft for want of pilots.
As mainline carriers cannibalize the large regional carriers’ pilot rosters in turn, even the large regionals will be forced to park aircraft (starting with 50-seat jets) and cut service to many more communities, according to Ornstein. “The situation is going to get worse and wipe out regionals and wipe cities off the map,” he warned. “No one can argue that by reducing service you are pushing people into their cars, and they are killed 100 times as often. You have a moral obligation to repeal this law, because it is injuring people.”
In the past, Mesa obtained most pilots through training programs run in partnership with educational institutions, or from online applications. “Now we’re spending millions of dollars, a ridiculous waste of resources,” on actively recruiting pilots. “We have 10 people just recruiting people,” said Ornstein. However, Mesa has developed a canny strategy. Where U.S.-trained pilots with 350 flying hours’ experience flock from the U.S. to find employment as first officers with the airlines of other countries that require only limited flying experience, Mesa has established pilot-recruiting offices in other countries. The offices recruit first officers from South America and Australia whose citizens can fulfill official requirements for U.S. working visas relatively easily—and the Middle East, where pilots may qualify for refugee status in the U.S. Recently Mesa has had success in recruiting pilots from all three areas, and pilots from other countries now represent a double-digit percentage of its total pilot complement.
Meanwhile, fellow U.S. regional SkyWest has endeavored in its own way to combat the pilot staffing “challenge.” Still, even after the company’s SkyWest Airlines operating subsidiary recently managed to secure a four-year extension to its pilot contract, it takes nothing for granted. “Pilot staffing is a challenge across the airline industry and it’s a challenge we continually monitor at each of our entities,” said SkyWest CEO Chip Childs during his company's second quarter earnings conference call. (ExpressJet is SkyWest’s other aircraft-operating unit.) “We experienced reduced attrition at both [during the second quarter]…and each remains well-staffed; from an industry perspective, however, there’s no question that it’s a challenge that will become more acute. We are focused on proactively addressing the issue and ensuring we continue to provide exceptional pilot careers.”
SkyWest has established partnerships with flight schools and universities across the country to ensure a ready supply of pilots, while it continues talks with its ExpressJet subsidiary’s two pilot groups, both of whose labor contracts come due at the end of the year.
Childs expressed enthusiasm for “the concept” of the current FAA reauthorization bill, but added “from our perspective, it falls short in two distinct areas,” including “the pilot issue.”
“If we look at the data, it is absolutely, positively clear: if we’re going to move the dial on what is a very emotional safety issue…we have to address it through additional training programs and modify the pathway,” said Childs. “I’m actually for 1,500 hours [as an airline pilot-qualification requirement], but I’m also for alternate programs that clearly need to be evolutionary towards safety, and I don’t think anybody who has looked at the data…could argue that there’s not some significant opportunity there.”
SkyWest’s second worry about the FAA reauthorization bill centers on the House of Representatives’ support for privatizing air traffic control. “In its current form…I can tell you it is falling short of what we think that…local communities [need for air service] both with the pilot issue and the funding issue,” said Childs. “Many local communities throughout America are going to [experience] a big impact if this is not addressed in this bill.”
Several communities served by Seattle-based Horizon Air have already felt the effects, as a pilot shortage at the Alaska Air Group subsidiary forced it to significantly cut its Bombardier Q400 flight schedule throughout the summer. Now Horizon Air is evaluating whether it must continue canceling Q400 flights throughout the rest of the year and fill the holes in its schedule as best it can with additional short-term flying by Alaska Airlines regional partners such as SkyWest Airlines.
“The entire regional airline industry is facing a serious pilot shortage,” said Horizon in a response to an email inquiry from AIN. “What is going well for Horizon is that its pilots recently ratified a contract with top-of-the-industry wages. Pilot hiring is improving at Horizon; June and July new-hire classes are full and we’ve stepped up our recruiting efforts.
“We’re focused on addressing the current pilot shortage and believe these steps will boost our efforts to recruit and retain pilots at Horizon. Horizon’s goal is to hire 300 pilots this year, and we’re nearly to the halfway mark. With Horizon’s new pilot contract, Horizon Air now ranks in the top three regional airlines for pilot pay, which is helping us attract qualified new pilots. In fact, we’ve filled our new-hire pilot classes for June and July with 30 new hires. But it will take time for the new recruitment efforts included in the newly ratified pilot contract to bear fruit.”
Asked if it thought the FAA could sensibly modify the existing pilot qualification rule by introducing further measures to allow academic credit towards the 1,500-hour requirement, Horizon wouldn’t commit to a position. “We’ve not taken a position on any pending measures and would need to carefully evaluate them,” it said. “In general, though, we acknowledge that there could be multiple ways to gain the meaningful experience necessary to serve as a professional airline pilot.”
Although Horizon Air reckons the measures it has taken will position it to withstand further pilot shortages, the carrier’s view of the industry’s overall prospects for overcoming them appear less optimistic: “The reality is that there may simply not be enough new pilots entering the pipeline to keep up with industry growth and customer demand,” it concluded.