Transport Airlines

Regional Airlines’ Pilot Shortage is Heading Toward the Perfect Storm

Aug 29, 2013 5:41 am

Skift Take

Major airlines covet their regional airline partners’ pilots, and the big carriers are going to have to come up with programs to help the regionals get through the crunch.

— Dennis Schaal

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JL Johnson  / flickr.com

With mainline airline pilots retiring and carriers such as United and Delta hiring for the first time in years, they are looking to regional airline pilots to fill the ranks. JL Johnson / flickr.com


Regional airline pilots are trained to fly in all kinds of weather, but they are heading toward the proverbial perfect storm.

That’s because regional airline pilot-recruitment wars are about to get intense, very messy, and ugly.

Next year is destined to be the beginning of crunch time in the battle for cockpit talent among regional and mainline airlines for several reasons: Major airlines, including Delta and United, are beginning to hire pilots for the first time in several years, and they will look to the upper ranks of regional airlines to fill a large number of the positions.

Regional airlines, which range from  American Eagle and Republic Airways to Air Wisconsin and Mesa, are already facing a hiring crisis and will find it increasingly difficult to fill pilot positions because of the talent drain to the mainline airlines, and more rigorous, federally imposed training requirements.

This pinch could be somewhat offset by the phasing out of some — but not all — 50-seat aircraft, and the transition to larger, and more-efficient regional jets, which should mean fewer pilots per passengers flown.

But, as you’ll see, even that migration to larger regional jets will be convoluted and wild, from the pilots’ perspective, at least.

“In 2014, this is going to hit the fan,” says aviation consultant Kit Darby, adding that Delta is slated to hire some 300 pilots in November, and United plans a pilot-recruitment drive for 2014.

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Much of the focus will be on regional airlines, which are already facing their own pilot shortfall, and are fighting over potential hires even before they complete their training, with promises of signing bonuses and perks.

As regional airlines take on a higher profile in U.S. aviation, they are coping with new training mandates that make pilot recruitment more of a high-stakes game, and more difficult.

New Requirements

Starting August 1, as a response to the 2009 Colgan Air flight 3407 accident that killed 50 people, co-pilots are required to complete at least 1,500 hours of pilot training to fly commercially and obtain an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate, up from the previous 250 hours of flight experience for a commercial pilot certificate.

Since regional airlines in the U.S. fly about half of the total number of flights and one quarter of the passengers as they feed flyers into the major airlines’ hubs, Darby says with some exaggeration: “The big airlines are not going to run out of pilots, but they are going to run out of passengers.”

In addition to feeding passengers to the mainline airlines, the regionals also supply them with pilot new-hires. “The regionals are going to be a mess from a regional pilot’s point of view,” Darby says. “The majors will be hiring regional captains off of the top of their seniority list and the regionals will be furloughing first officers from the bottom due to the flying reduction if United and American follow the same model as Delta, which seems likely.”

In a seemingly bygone era, when major airlines were smaller than they are today, and prior to their putting such tight restrictions on capacity, “they each hired 1,000 pilots per year in good times,” Darby says.

“The big three (United, Delta and American) could easily absorb the entire excess of pilots in a single year, maybe even 6 months, still leaving a large shortage over time,” Darby says.

Of course, the DOJ suit to block the US Airways-American Airlines merger puts a whole new level of uncertainty into the equation regarding pilot needs for each of the two airlines, if they don’t merge, and the rippling dynamics at associated regional airlines.

All of this is a highly volatile situation for regional airlines, and the pilots and co-pilots that fill — or seek to join — their ranks.

As potential hires dry up because of the increased training requirements, regional airlines are already trying to recruit them with signing bonuses, and sometimes candidates are fielding multiple offers simultaneously.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Unwritten rules about major airlines not raiding each others’ pilot ranks are likely to be tossed aside, at least one observer says.

“We don’t expect a shortage at the major and global airlines, but are certain the larger carriers will poach pilots from the smaller airlines with large jets, as well as the regional carriers flying smaller jets,” says Louis Smith, president of Future & Active Pilot Advisors.

In other words, large airlines will be able to recruit pilots because of the relatively high salaries they offer, but it will be the regional airlines, which the major carriers depend on, that will have a hard time filling their cockpits.

Smith believes that the regional airlines in the U.S. will lose about half of their pilots to mainline airlines over the next five years, and that the regionals will find it very difficult to land qualified pilots, as the recruiting pool is severely depleted.

It isn’t as though regional airlines can simply throw money at higher pilot salaries as union contracts are already in place, but Smith predicts market conditions will force some of the regionals to open up their agreements with pilots.

“The only way the regional airlines can comply with the new ATP rules and staff their cockpits is to attract pilots out of the woodwork, and the only way to attract enough pilots from the woodwork is to provide a guaranteed seniority number at the mainline carriers,” Smith says.

The mainline carriers may have to fix the problem for their regional airline partners by forging flow-through agreements, with possibilities including having the mainline carriers foot the bill for pilot-training costs, and allowing regional pilots to transition to the big airlines without having to go through a screening process again.

Not everyone, though, agrees that a pilot-shortage crisis is imminent

Absorbing a Pilot Surplus Quickly

Bryan Bedford, the CEO of Republic Airways, which operates the for-sale Frontier Airlines,  Republic Airlines, Chautauqua Airlines, and Shuttle America, said last month during the company’s Q2 earnings call and before news broke of the American Airlines-US Airways potential roadblock, that there will be a net loss of about 300 aircraft and a surplus of 3,000 pilots as the regional airline industry replaces some 50-seaters with 75-seaters and larger aircraft over the next three years.

Republic Airways has partnerships with American, Delta, United and US Airways.

“So, again that’s going to leave us with about 3,000 surplus pilots, which I believe the industry will clearly absorb,” Bedford said. “But now again the question is going to be who are the carriers, regionals that are growing and who are the regionals that are shrinking.”

Consultant Darby agrees with Bedford’s projections about the 3,000-pilot surplus, albeit as a temporary phenomenon.

“The extra 3,000 pilots will occur in an uneven manner where some small airlines will be hiring and others furloughing based on their success in the market, and the replacement of the 50-seat aircraft with larger, more efficient regional jets,” Darby says.

Don’t expect a smooth trend line, though.

“It will all be about the timing of these fleet changes,” Darby says. “It’s going to be a real mess while the airlines small and large adjust their fleet mix to the new reality of inefficient, 50-seat regional jets.”

If the transition to larger regional jets means disruption in the pilot workforce, for business travelers, the switchover should mean additional comfort, including more legroom and overhead bin space.

And, no more bumping your head on the overhead bins in cramped 50-seaters when you stand up.

Darryl Jenkins, an aviation consultant and founder of The Airline Zone, also looks into his crystal ball and views a future where regional pilots will be in short supply as pilots at legacy airlines retire, and need to be replaced.

Says Jenkins: “I think regional airlines will be under pressure for the next five or 10 years.”

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