American's Regional Pay Hikes Won't Quickly Unblock New-Pilot Pipeline

US regional airline-industry observers think the pilot-pay increase announcements made by Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines will do little in the short term.

At first glance, actions in the past two weeks by three regional carriers owned by American Airlines Group to raise the base pay for a first-year pilot to more than $58,000 and to increase sign-up-plus-retention bonuses to as much as $35,000 might seem to help ease a potentially massive US commercial-pilot shortage before it gets fully underway.

However, in reality, US regional airline-industry observers think the pilot-pay increase announcements made by Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines will do little in the short term other than to attract pilots from other US regional carriers.

This has the obvious implication that a round of substantial pilot pay increases probably will soon take place at most other US regional airlines as they strive to keep their pilots from deserting them for employment by American Airlines Group’s subsidiaries.

While regional-airline pilots will welcome substantial raises, it is high time they happened. US major carriers have been making substantial profits – in some cases, world-record profits for the industry – for a long time now.

But one practice which has greatly helped the majors in getting to this profit peak has been the continuous pressure they have put on their regional partners to cut operating margins and costs.

Over a period of years this has kept the pay of US regional airlines’ pilots – who are paid only for the hours they are at the controls of an aircraft operating a flight, not the hours they actually have to work –down to levels which have sometimes been equivalent to those of people working low-skills service jobs in the US economy.

This situation came to the attention of the US general public on February 9, 2010, when an episode of the US Public Broadcasting System investigative documentary series Frontline highlighted the poor work and pay conditions that many pilots in the US regional airline industry were having to endure. 

One impetus for the making of the Frontline documentary was the February 12, 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop regional airliner when it encountered icing conditions while performing its approach to Buffalo International Airport.

The improper response of the pilots to movements of the flight deck stick-pusher as it warned of an impending stall because of a build-up of ice on the wing leading edges caused the aircraft to enter an aerodynamic stall. The Q400 pancaked down to land on a house, killing all 49 people on board the aircraft and one person in the house.

After the accident and the subsequent investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board, it emerged that the flight’s first officer was only making around $16,000 a year in base pay. To save money, she was living with her parents in Seattle, on the other side of the continental USA from Newark Liberty International Airport, from where the Buffalo flight departed.

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On the night before the fatal flight she co-piloted, the first officer had flown throughout the night on a transcontinental Seattle-Newark flight to return to duty. That same night, the pilot who captained the crash flight had seemingly slept overnight at Newark Airport, probably on a couch in a pilots’ lounge.

(Several US commercial pilots, even some working for major airlines, live for much of the time in caravans – ‘trailers’, in US English – in a parking lot just beyond the eastern perimeter of Los Angeles International Airport, in order to be close to their jobs while on periods of flight duty.)

Although the Colgan Air captain wasn’t paid a particularly high salary, his pay was higher than the co-pilot’s. However, enough indications surfaced that on several previous check rides the captain had shown possible evidence of inadequate training for pilot fatigue resulting from low pay to be cited as a factor which contributed to the causes of the crash.

But in the longer-term aftermath of the accident and the safety recommendations the NTSB made following its investigation, the FAA eventually took a decision which directly has led to the threat of the US airline industry being seriously starved of new pilots in the near future.

A recent study by the University of North Dakota, cited in a 30 June Skift.com article on US airlines’ fears they would soon be hit badly by a pilot shortage, concluded that the shortage could burgeon to an under-supply of 15,000 pilots at US airlines by 2026. By then, more than half of all US commercial pilots now flying will reach retirement age and will be required by law to stop flying.

The FAA decision in questions was to raise six-fold, from 250 flight hours to 1,500 flight hours, the flight-experience requirement for any pilot to be eligible for recruitment as a first-time commercial pilot in the USA, supposedly on safety grounds.

US major carriers obtain almost all their new pilots from ‘flow-through’ agreements with their regional-airline partners, which then have to seek new pilots from the supply of freshly trained young pilots to replace the more experienced pilots going to better-paid jobs at the majors.

Some observers have questioned the FAA’s decision to require all commercial pilots to hold Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificates, which require 1,500 hours of flight experience, saying there is no evidence that this move has increased safety.

The study by the University of North Dakota – not the most expensive state in the USA by any means – found that in the university’s own very large pilot-training programme, it cost $64,500 for the 250 hours of flight-training for the needed to enable a pilot to obtain a commercial pilot certificate allowed to fly single-engine aircraft. A would-be pilot trainee would also have to pay as much as an additional $105,400 in tuition and boarding costs while he or she was undergoing this flight training.

The US national student loan programme is already notorious for saddling many young graduates with debts which take them almost a lifetime to pay back. The loan situation might be even worse for graduate pilots, who would need to spend as much as $200,000 in order to get on to the first rung of a career as a US airline pilot.

When US regional airlines were paying their new first officers around $20,000 a year and pilots were earning even less as flight instructors (with no job benefits) in order to get from 250 hours to the 1,500-hour level needed to become an airline pilot, many young would-be pilots saw this economic trap and decided to pursue other types of graduate education and training instead.

Hence the rapid onset of a potentially critical commercial-pilot shortage in the USA, which already has been felt by some carriers. Republic Airways Holdings cited a shortage of new pilots as one of the major reasons for its need to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February, a shortage which forced it to ground aircraft for the want of pilots to fly them.

Any action now by US regional carriers to offer new first officers better salaries, as American’s and Delta’s regional subsidiaries seem to be doing, is welcome in potentially helping ease the pilot shortage in the longer term. Should the FAA decide to relax its 1,500-hour ATP requirement for all commercial pilots for any reason – the US regional airlines are lobbying it hard to do so – that might prove an even stronger stimulus to unclogging the new-pilot pipeline.

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