US regional carriers play a crucial role in the American air transport system. But will increasingly serious staffing problems affecting many of those airlines lead to economic thrombosis?
Over the past 20 years, the number of US majors has inexorably shrunk as bankruptcies and amalgamations have taken their toll.
With airline names such as Northwest Airlines, Continental, US Airways and America West Airlines now confined to the history books, the number of US majors is just four – United, American, Delta and Southwest.
Alaska Airlines, gaining in size following its takeover of Virgin America, and JetBlue make up a small, second tier group. Then there is a trio of low cost carriers – Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier. Under these big names, however, come the regionals.
More than 20 criss-cross the country, connecting secondary and tertiary cities and frequently providing the sole links between those cities and the major hubs. Usually, they operate in the colours of the majors for which they provide feeder services as United Express, Delta Connection or American Eagle.
Each of those brands incorporates several regional carriers, with most of them substantial airlines by any standards. Their scale can be seen from the fact that, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA), which represents 22 carriers, regional airlines operate 44 per cent of US scheduled commercial airline departures.
But, although many regionals report stable or growing markets, they increasingly face a major problem, namely the shortage of new pilots.
The reasons for this situation are well known: in response to safety concerns after the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air flight in Buffalo, New York, the US government ruled that all pilots of US airlines had to have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) qualification of at least 1,500 hours in their logbooks prior to hiring.
This has led to a crisis in the supply of young pilots who now face several more years of gaining experience, together with the associated costs, before they can start to earn a salary at one of the regionals.
The RAA has been seeking ways of easing the log jam. In December 2017, it urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use its existing powers to approve ‘additional, safety-enhancing structured training pathways for Part 121 airline first officers’.
It is thought regulatory obstacles and high training costs are barring entry to the career during a period of unprecedented major airline hiring. With too few pilots to serve all of today’s routes, the regional airline industry is contracting.
The RAA noted that the accelerating shortage of pilots had led to the regional airline industry contracting sharply between 2013 and 2016. In that period, 156 airports lost at least 20 per cent of their departures; 52 airports lost at least half; 29 lost at least 75 per cent and 18 airports lost all their commercial air services.
Without intervention, these impacts will further deepen as US major airlines prepare to hire the equivalent of the entire regional airline pilot workforce within the next three years.
“Improving aviation safety and reopening the pilot career path are not mutually exclusive objectives,” said RAA president Faye Malarkey Black. “We urge the FAA to review the available data and carefully evaluate additional pathways, approving them where they will enhance safety.”
In the interests of balance, it should be noted that the Air Line Pilots Association is strongly against any efforts to weaken the 1,500 hour rule, arguing that it has contributed to airline safety in the US since its introduction.
One option for improving the flow of pilots to the regional sector is the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) November 2017 ‘Forces to Flyers’ initiative, a research programme aimed at helping US military pilots with airline pilot career preparation and training.
This initiative was particularly apt as both the commercial airline and defence sectors were having to cope with problematic pilot shortages, said the RAA. As all stakeholders continued to pursue a range of complementary policies aimed at resolving the pilot shortage, programmes such as this could start to pave a path toward recovery.
However, with the US armed forces themselves facing pilot shortages, they are bringing in financial incentives to try to halt any haemorrhage of military pilots to the commercial sector, so it remains to be seen how successful the DOT’s initiative will be.
Black tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business that while salaries in the regional sector had dramatically improved (up more than 150 per cent between 2015 and today), “overall recruiting success actually declined during that same period”.
She notes that one method of making the most of the number of available pilots was for regional carriers to up-gauge their fleets, carrying more passengers in each flight. Thus, the average seating capacity of a regional aircraft in 2016 had grown to 62 compared to 51 in 2008.
While larger aircraft benefited some destinations, however, not every community could support these larger types and the regional airline industry was operating fewer flights than five years ago.
“This industry contraction…is especially notable because it took place during a period of economic recovery, where communities would ordinarily gain destination options and frequency. It is extremely unusual to see drawdowns during a period of economic expansion. Unfortunately, these human resources constraints are predicted to grow,” Black says.
She argues that the 1,500 hour rule had also brought some unwelcome consequences: “An even more important challenge associated with the pilot shortage, that does not get the coverage it merits, is the way the quality of the available pilot pool is changing.”
As pilots spent more time away from structured training, building unsupervised flight hours towards the 1,500-level required by the 2013 First Officer Qualification Rule, “RAA airlines noticed a degradation of skills among new pilot candidates.
“Regional airlines have enhanced their recruiting and training programmes to identify, screen out where appropriate, and otherwise offer extra training support to pilots who have grown rusty or seen a degradation of skills due to their hours, building time away from structured training.”
A key concern by some of the regional carriers that adds to the problem is that commercial aviation has lost some of its former glamour, hindering its ability to attract youngsters into the sector.
“We make sure that students in high school and middle school know aviation is an amazing industry,” says Dave Sniadak, manager for corporate communications at Endeavor Air, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines flying as Delta Connection.
“Sure, there’s an investment up front to get started, but we try to sell the long-term prospects. It is still a very glamorous industry.
“I think there’s some hesitation when they see the sticker shock [cost of training]. That scares a lot of potential pilots away. Whenever Endeavor can bring in school groups, boy scouts, women in aviation groups, we open our doors and welcome them and show them that the future is bright, if they’re prepared to put on their sunglasses and walk the walk,” Sniadak comments.
CommutAir, operating as United Express, was founded in 1989 and is based in Ohio. The airline’s Chief Executive and President Subodh Karnik shares similar thoughts: “My view is that, for some reason, the glamour of being a pilot has diminished somewhat.”
Karnik is certain that the US regional airline industry is in a fully-fledged pilot crisis. “It’s exactly the same, if not worse, for aircraft mechanics,” he points.
Unlike many European countries, young pilots in the US are not usually eligible for student loans or similar funding, while maintenance staff needed six or seven years to become ‘conversant’ with the aircraft they were handling, Karnik noted.
Minneapolis-based Endeavor operates largely east of the Mississippi, right up the east coast. By May, it will have the world’s largest fleet of Bombardier CRJ900s (109), plus 42 CRJ200s and three CRJ700s. Two factors, good salaries and Endeavor Air’s close links with Delta Air Lines, have helped it stave off the pilot shortage, says Sniadak.
“A newly hired first officer can expect to make more than $60,000 and they often do $65,000. We hired 625 pilots in 2017, many with previous Part 121 experience. [We also] sent 190 pilots to Delta through our hiring commitments. We’ve sent over 700 to Delta since 2014.”
Endeavor’s exclusive ‘Delta Guarantee Interview Programme’ means that a pilot hired at Endeavor who serves as a captain for two years and meets Delta’s hiring qualifications will earn a guaranteed interview with the mainline carrier. “We understand that a pilot doesn’t necessarily want to fly at a regional for the rest of his or her career. We guarantee them a chance to earn the hardest part of getting hired at Delta – the interview.”
To give its pilots the best chance of making the jump, Endeavor operates to Delta standards in areas such as flight operations, customer service and crew resource management.
CommutAir’s Karnik says that his company, a United Express carrier is ‘better off’ than others in terms of pilot supply because it is growing, and, like Endeavor, it can offer an attractive salary package.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, possibly the most esteemed scientific-technical university in the US, typically earns around $77,000 and a London School of Economics BA/BSc earns a median salary of $39,000, says Karnik. “We’re paying a first year pilot about $75,000.”
However, that is just one side of the equation, he says. Although flight training schools are increasing their throughput of student pilots, the number of graduates they produce still comes nowhere near meeting the industry’s needs.
Karnik adds that other than a couple of pilot programmes, most notably JetBlue, US airlines do not have a recruiting and training pipeline like the large European airlines who school prospective pilots from the ab initio stage.
CommutAir is in the middle of a major growth spurt. At United’s behest, it has made the switch to becoming an all jet operator and plans to grow from its present fleet of 24 Embraer EMB-145s to 61 over the next two years. It also hopes to grow out of its existing two hubs at Washington Dulles and New York Newark.
“We are much better positioned in 2018 than in the past two to three years; 2017 was a transition year as we converted to all-jet aircraft,” says Karnik. In around a year, he adds, it will start talking to United about its next aircraft type. For the moment, however, it is concentrating on its planned steady growth.
Both carriers are confident of a strong future – if only the pilot problem can be solved.
Editor’s Note: The post was originally published in April 2018.