By Patrick Smith,
Jul. 20, 2017

THE PILOT SHORTAGE is here, and it’s been making headlines. Last month, Horizon Air, the Seattle-based affiliate of Alaska Airlines and one of the country’s biggest regional carriers, announced it would be forced to reduce its busy summer schedule due to a dearth of pilots.
The shortage already caused Horizon to cancel more than 300 flights in June. Earlier this year, Republic Airways, a large U.S. regional carrier that flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, filed for bankruptcy protection. It blamed the filing, in part, on a lack of qualified pilots. Other carriers have been canceling flights and mothballing aircraft as pilot recruitment departments scramble to fill classroom slots.

Yes, the shortage is real. It’s critical, however, to make it clear which sectors of the aviation industry we’re talking about. First, we are looking specifically at the U.S. airline industry. Civilian pilots in the United States are responsible for securing their own FAA credentials, and for logging hundreds, or even thousands, of hours of flight time before applying at an airline. It’s a long, slow, and very expensive process. Other countries often recruit pilots differently, with a growing reliance on so-called “ab-initio” programs, whereby young candidates are chosen from scratch, with no prior experience, and are groomed from the ground-up, so to speak, in a tightly controlled regimen that puts them in the cockpit of a jetliner very quickly. These programs are ultra-competitive, drawing hundreds of applicants for each available slot. Even more important, we need to draw a sharp divide between the major carriers and their regional affiliates. The major carriers, also referred to as “legacy” carriers, everyone is pretty familiar with — American, United, Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, et al. There is no pilot shortage at these companies, and unless something changes drastically they will continue to have a surplus of highly qualified candidates to choose from. They are able to cull from the top ranks of the regionals, as well as from the military and corporate aviation pools. Even amidst an ongoing wave of retirements, a steady supply of experienced crews is unlikely to be depleted.

At the regional airlines, it’s a different story. And by “regional” we are referring to the numerous subcontractors who operate smaller jets and turboprops on the majors’ behalf: those myriad “Connection” and “Express” companies, whose actual identities are usually concealed beneath the liveries of whichever major they are aligned with. United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle, and so on. For civilian pilots, the typical career progression includes a substantial amount of tenure at this level before, assuming he or she is fortunate enough, progressing to a major. And it’s here where the problem is.

How it came to this is both a long and short story. The short story is that pay at the regionals is terrible and working conditions are harsh. This has driven thousands of pilots out of the industry, and/or has discouraged countless others from pursuing an aviation career in the first place. Becoming a licensed commercial pilot, to the point where one is eligible to apply for an airline job — any airline job — requires a huge amount of time and money. It can take years, and the average pilots sinks well over a hundred thousand dollars into his or her flight training and education. Salaries at the regionals, meanwhile, have traditionally started low as $20,000 a year, and have topped out at under six figures. Schedules are demanding and benefits paltry; the relationship between management and the workers is often hostile. On top of all that, the regional sector is highly unstable. These carriers always seem to be coming or going, shrinking or shedding planes, changing their names and realigning themselves with different majors. But this is nothing new. Pay and working conditions at these companies have always been substandard. Yet filling jobs has seldom been a problem, so what gives? Well, what’s different is that the regional sector has grown so large. Today, regional jets account for an astonishing half — 53 percent was the last number I saw — of all domestic departures in the United States. As recently as twenty years ago it was somewhere around fifteen percent. In those days, pilots saw a job with a regional as a temporary inconvenience — paying one’s dues. It was a stepping stone toward a more lucrative position with a major. Pilots are now realizing that a job at a regional could easily mean an entire career at a regional. Thus, a diminishing number have been willing to commit the time and money to their education and training when the return on investment is somewhere between unpredictable and financially ruinous. An aspiring aviator has to ask, is it worth sinking $100,000 or more into one’s primary training, plus the time it will take to build the necessary number of flight hours, plus the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major? For many, the answer is no.

In the meantime, the FAA has enacted tougher hiring standards for entry-level pilots. Over the past two decades, as the regional sector grew and grew, thousands of new jobs were created. To fill these slots, airlines sharply lowered their experience and flight time minimums. Suddenly, pilots were being taken on with as little as 350 hours of total time, assigned to the first officer’s seat of sophisticated regional jets. Then came a rash of accidents, including the Colgan Air (Continental Connection) disaster outside Buffalo in 2009. Regulators began taking a closer look at hiring practices, eventually passing legislation mandating higher flight time totals and additional certification requirements for new-hires.

Some airlines blame the shortage at least partly on these tougher rules. Technically they’re right, but really all the new regulations have done is returning things to historical norms. My first job with a regional — “commuters” we called them in those days — was in 1990. Competitive applicants at the time had between 1,500 and 2,000 hours, and most of us had an FAA Airline Transport Pilot certificate as well. That’s more or less what the FAA requires today. The difference, of course, is that there are far more jobs to fill. Things are beginning to change, if slowly. To their credit, many regionals have started upping their salaries and improving benefits. The cost structures of these carriers, whose existence is primarily to allow the majors to outsource flying on the cheap, limits how much they can lavish on their employees, but if they want to stay in the game, they frankly have little choice. New-hires at companies like Endeavor Air (a Delta affiliate) and PSA (American), for example, can now make first-year salaries in the $70,000-plus range. That’s around three times what these pilots would have been making in years past. Some companies are offering signing bonuses of several thousand dollars, and work rules too are getting better. Air Wisconsin, a United partner and one of the nation’s oldest regionals, says that new-hires can now earn up to $57,000 in sign-on bonuses. It promises earnings of between $260,000 and $317,000, including salary, bonuses, and what it calls “elected benefits,” over the first three years of employment. Numbers like that are unprecedented.

For those considering a piloting career, the situation is looking better. The problem for the industry, though, is the lag time. For a pilot just learning to fly, any cockpit job is still a long way off — probably years away. So while the mechanisms are falling into place to curtail a full-flown crisis, the shortage is going to be with us for a while.

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