A growing pilot
shortage at regional airlines could soon pose a major headache for airline
passengers across the U.S.
“It’s a crisis that is exploding right now,” said Dan Akins,
a transportation economist who two years ago co-founded the consulting firm
Flightpath Economics in anticipation of the pilot shortage. “It’s not going to
get better. It’s going to get worse. It’s almost a contagion.”
Republic Airways, which operates Delta
Connection, United Express and American Eagle flights, has experienced monthly
cancellation rates as high as 9%, prompting Delta to accuse the company in an October lawsuit of not providing
promised services. And although much of Republic’s problems were driven by a
protracted contract dispute with its pilots, which was resolved in October, the
carrier isn’t alone in having concerns about having enough pilots to staff
Also in October, citing pilot shortages, regional provider
Seaport Airlines reduced the number of direct routes it flies from its Memphis
hub from more than 10 to just three and ended the only commercial service in
Tupelo, Miss., and Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Meanwhile, while regional stalwart SkyWest, which like
Republic partners with American and Delta and United, has been able to avoid
major issues with cancellations, it did cut capacity 5.7% between November 2014
and last November.
During the company’s third-quarter earnings conference,
SkyWest President Chip Childs acknowledged that the carrier is “not immune” to
pilot shortages and, according to a transcript of the meeting posted by the
website Seeking Alpha, noted that the key for the airline is to manage the
dilemma, “from the very, very beginning.”
Despite the cessation of some routes, together with high
cancellation rates at Republic and some smaller regional carriers, the pilot
shortage has yet to have enough of an impact on the flying public to generate
widespread awareness of the problem.
That could be about to change.
Since 2011, the number of city pairs flown by U.S. regional
aircraft has dropped by more than 12%, according to Bill Swelbar, who has
analyzed the pilot shortage as a vice president of the Washington-based airline
and airport industry consulting company InverVistas Consulting. But both he and
Akins expect 2016 and 2017 to be a tipping point. And the problem, they say,
will get worse quickly.
Driving their forecasts are the twin dynamic of a rash of
upcoming retirements at American, Delta, Southwest and United coupled with a
dearth of candidates working their way through flight-training academies.
In a report about the pilot shortage released last year,
Flightpath Economics projected that between 2014 and 2022, 18,000 pilots will
retire from the Big Four carriers. That’s as many pilots as staff the entire
regional U.S. network, which also serves as the predominant recruiting network
for the mainline carriers.
Swelbar’s estimates are similar, and the number of
retirements, he said, will actually escalate year after year, jumping from just
under the estimated 1,100 in 2015 to more than 1,200 this year and to nearly
2,500 in 2022.
As mainline pilots retire, many will be replaced by pilots
who today are flying for regional carriers. Those pilots, in turn, must be
replaced by pilots coming out of flight-training schools. In addition, pilots
must be added to the system to account for growth at not only the Big Four airlines
but also at the rapidly expanding network of low-cost carriers, such as Spirit
According to Akins, there just aren’t enough people in the
flight-training pipeline to keep up.
“We don’t have enough capacity in this country to train
enough pilots to meet the demand,” he said.
A main cause of that problem, say many in the industry, is a
congressionally mandated rule that took effect in 2013 that increased the
minimum hours a pilot must have in the cockpit in order to fly for a commercial
airline from 250 to 1,500.
The six-fold increase went into effect even as wages at
regional airlines remained relatively low. Under the deal that Republic reached
with it pilots’ union in October, new pilots will get $40 per flight hour. But
that’s industry-leading and some 33% more than the starting rates at SkyWest.
With wages at the Republic level, the economics of putting
in the 1,500 hours of training time just don’t add up, Akins said.
Furthermore, those who do graduate from U.S. flight
academies often have the option of chasing far bigger dollars, sometime well
into six figures, on foreign carriers, and they can do so without obtaining
anywhere near 1,500 hours of flight time, said Swelbar, who cited as an example
the growing Middle East airlines, such as Emirates.
The Regional Airline Association, which counts Sky West’s
and Republic’s various brands among its 26 members, declined to be interviewed
for this story. It did, however, release a statement in early December about a
program called ACE, short for the Air Carrier Enhanced Pilot Training Program,
that it hopes to establish. The statement said it would offer an alternative,
streamlined path to a commercial pilot’s license that takes advantage of
flight-time credit hours already allowed by Congress for specialized training
Other airline industry players were also loath to discuss
pilot shortages at regional airlines. SkyWest declined such an interview, and
Republic did not respond to an interview request.
United declined to discuss the shortage in an interview but
in a brief email stated, “We continue to work with our United Express partners
to minimize any possible inconvenience this may cause our customers.”
Airlines for America, which represents mainline U.S.
airlines, including American, Southwest and United, said that it was not
concerned about the regional airline pilot shortage.
“We expect the major commercial airlines will remain
appropriately staffed and are not expecting any shortage,” spokesman Vaughn
A contraction of regional flight service would have a major impact on many midsize and smaller U.S. communities.
Swelbar said he expected that one way or another the major
carriers will adapt to the shortage, even if it means a drop in regional
“When you think about it, if they’re going to be forced to
fly a smaller network, they’ll figure out how to do it, and they’ll do it
profitably,” he said.
But a contraction of regional flight service would have a
major impact on many midsize and smaller U.S. communities, especially since
regional flights account for nearly 40% of all domestic commercial flights in
the U.S., according to Flightpath Economics.
“Carriers are going to have to decide” Akins said. “We can
only support 80% of the regional services that we need, so how do we handle