Guest Editor Aaron Newman
Help Wanted … Pilots!
By Aaron Newman
In direct response to the Colgan Air 3407 crash in 2009, Congress passed the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, also known as the “1500 hour rule.” The law mandates that the Federal Aviation Administration require pilots to complete 1,500 flight hours before they’re allowed to fly commercially, up from just 250 hours before the act. We are nearing the one year anniversary since the law was enacted (July 15, 2013) and over the last few months we have seen this law make minor rumblings across the smallest in the industry; will we continue to see this law disrupt an already volatile industry? What effects will the “baby boomer” generation of pilots have on the industry as they near the forced retirement age of 65? Let’s take a closer look…
Regionals Hit Hard
The new rules have already impacted the country’s smallest airlines because their pilots tend to be younger and less experienced. For the pilot, this means more schooling and more expense in return for moderately low wages.
Copyright Photo: Michael B. Ing/AirlinersGallery.com.
One example is Great Lakes Airlines (above), which serves Essential Air Service (EAS) cities across the upper Midwest and Rocky Mountains. Great Lakes Airlines cancelled service in February from Minneapolis-St. Paul to the following cities: Thief River Falls in Minnesota; Devils Lake and Jamestown, North Dakota; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; and Ironwood, Michigan. Great Lakes is blaming the cuts on the new mandated pilot law. In a statement, Great Lakes CEO Charles Howell explained in a company statement, “Due to the unintended consequences of the new mandated pilot regulatory requirements, the company feels it is in the best interest of our customers, communities and employees to suspend service from these stations until we are able to rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service.”
Silver Airways, based in the southeastern U.S. is following suit. Silver Airways has announced plans to drop Muscle Shoals AL, Greenville MS, Hattiesburg/Laurel, Tupelo and Meridian from its Atlanta GA hub effective in July. Silver Airways President and CEO Dave Pflieger attributed the move to tighter Federal Aviation Administration regulations on minimum pilot hours. “New federal regulations related to flight and duty limitations, as well as increased requirements related to new hire pilot certification, have had the unintended effect of creating a nationwide shortage of regional airline pilots.”
Although the above examples are unwelcomed news for the cities they serve, they do not affect the large majority of the traveling public and have gone relatively unnoticed. The first major news that gained the industry’s attention came from American Eagle Airlines (now renamed Envoy Air).
Copyright Photo: Marcelo F. De Biasi/AirlinersGallery.com.
Envoy Air (above) flies a large portion of American Airlines’ regional flights. American Eagles union recently voted down a contract offer to continue flying with the merged American Airlines. As a result, American Airlines will not allocate any new regional aircraft to Envoy Air, and the Eagle subsidiary’s regional flying will diminish as its aircraft fleet is retired. Despite the obvious threat that pilots will eventually lose their jobs if they rejected the contract, Envoy Air’s pilots overwhelmingly voted it down (70% voted against). With other domestic airlines to needing thousands of new pilots each year, Envoy Air pilots don’t foresee much trouble finding new jobs that will probably offer better pay and/or career advancement.
This is the beginning of what I believe is many changes to come within the domestic regional airline industry. Cheaper pilot labor is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Envoy Air pilots’ decision to turn down a contract knowing that it would eventually lead to the loss of their jobs demonstrates how little bargaining leverage the regional airlines have. Qualified pilots are expected to have a plenty of alternative job opportunities if their employers aren’t prepared to retain their best talent with higher wages and improved benefits. The strongest airlines in the regional sector are likely to survive, because network carriers will need the regional airlines to provide connecting traffic. The pending nationwide pilot shortage is putting the largest pressure on regionals, and ultimately some may not survive. A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found 11 of 12 regional airlines fell short of their hiring targets in the past year.
Impending Pilot shortage
Does the new 1500 hour pilot rule create less supply in an industry with growing domestic and global demand? In their latest industry forecast, Boeing concluded that the global aviation industry will need to supply one million new pilots by the year 2032 to support growth from expanding economies (Boeing.com). The largest projected growth in pilot demand is in the Asia Pacific region, with a requirement for 192,300 new pilots over the next 20 years. China will generate the largest share of the region’s demand, with a need for 77,400 pilots. Europe will require 99,700 pilots, North America 85,700, Latin America 48,600, and the Middle East 40,000 (Boeing.com).
Graph Source: Boeing.com
As the major airlines start a new wave of hiring, they face uncertainties going forward; the regional pilot pool of candidates isn’t growing, military pilots being incentivized to stay, and growing global competition for qualified pilots. Regional airlines will undoubtedly feel the impact first, larger airlines secondly, but the impact will also be disrupting on the communities, whose air service will be reduced by a shortage of pilots. Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, states, “flights are going to get grounded and canceled; airplanes are going to be parked” (Philadelphia Inquirer).
Is there hope on the horizon that the industry will remain unshaken from this? The last decade has seen flat levels of new pilots entering the market. Airlines (specifically regionals) are getting creative, introducing new methods to recruit the next wave of young aviators. Signing bonuses are now common, some as high as $10,000. Some airlines are offering pilot recruits incentives just to attend job fairs; Ipad’s, and cash prizes. Assisting aviation students pay tuition is also beginning to enter the field and university aeronautical programs are working with regional airlines to guarantee interviews after graduation. The most creative tactic so far has been utilized by Great Lakes Airlines. They are removing 10 seats from their Beechcraft turboprops so its first officers can avoid the regulations of the new law and fly with less than 1,500 hours (captains still need 1,500 hours).
Seating Chart: Great Lakes Airlines.
Meanwhile, the larger airlines are doing their best to isolate themselves from the risk of a regional pilot shortage. For example; Delta Airlines has been the biggest largest airline to make visual changes to its fleet strategy since the law was enacted. Delta’s acquisition of 88 Boeing 717’s from Southwest/Airtran was in direct response to the law. It now deploys these mainline aircraft on short-to-medium routes cutting the older, inefficient CRJ 200 and removing the risk of pilot shortage on regional pilots by converting these planes to mainline crews.
With the obvious need for pilots, the market should respond at some point soon and start producing new pilots to fill its jobs. Regional pilot pay will have to improve in order to attract new people to the industry. Most U.S. airlines are currently in growth period and have to look to invest in new talent in order to thrive. Whether you agree with this law or not, it appears the law is here to stay and airlines will need to adjust in order to cope. Either way it will be an interesting to watch as the years progress. Hopefully we can all agree on this…there aren’t many dull moments in the airline industry!