Regionals increase pilots' pay, but will it be enough to end shortage?

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A pilot at SkyWest Airlines, one of the carriers that has offered substantial pay increases for its pilots since fall 2015.
A pilot at SkyWest Airlines, one of the carriers that has offered substantial pay increases for its pilots since fall 2015.

Pilots flying for many regional U.S. airlines saw substantial pay increases in the past 14 months, but experts say that while those increases offer incentives for people to consider a career as a commercial pilot, they won't on their own put an end to the nationwide pilot shortage plaguing regional carriers.

The pay hikes, meanwhile, could make it harder for regional carriers to turn a profit.

"It clearly means baggage fees are not going away," said Louis Smith, president of Fapa.aero, a career and financial planner for professional pilots.

This fall, American Airlines' wholly owned regional carriers -- Envoy, PSA and Piedmont -- increased starting salaries by between 32% and 47% while implementing signing bonuses of $20,000. As a result, first-year pilots make nearly $60,000

American's subsidiaries followed a move by Delta's wholly owned Endeavor Air in January, which raised starting salaries by 20% while offering retention bonuses for four years of $20,000, an effective doubling of starting pay, according to Dan Akins, a transportation economist and the founder of Flightpath Economics.

Republic and SkyWest, the nation's two largest regional carriers, also implemented substantial pilot pay increases since the fall of 2015, as did other carriers, including the SkyWest subsidiary ExpressJet.

Many regional carriers, including the ones owned by major airlines as well as Republic and SkyWest, work under contracts with the legacy carriers, shuttling passengers on United Express, Delta Shuttle and American Eagle routes.

The surge of substantial pay increases at the regional carriers came in response to growing recruitment difficulties as low pay, combined with the expense of getting the federally required 1,500 hours of training, caused the pilot pipeline to dry up.

In response, regional airlines have been forced to cut routes. SeaPort Airlines, which operated out of the West Coast and Midwest, closed this year, citing the pilot shortage. Republic filed a preemptive bankruptcy early this year as a way of extracting concessions from American, United and Delta on reimbursement rates and on route cutbacks.

Small airports are another primary victim of the pilot shortage as regional airlines have cut routes and shifted toward larger airplanes to remain viable. Between the second quarter of 2013 and the end of 2015, 29 small airports in the continental U.S. lost commercial service, according to the trade group American Association of Airport Executives.

Chad Kendall, chief instructor at the Jacksonville University School of Aviation in Jacksonville, Fla., said the pay jumps will be a boost for the regional airlines. Aspiring pilots typically must spend between $160,000 and $200,000 to get licensed to fly commercial planes.

"I'm seeing enthusiasm for students who are looking at regionals, even people going into the airlines as a second career," Kendall said. "Seeing these base-level salary increases is very attractive to them."

But others in the industry said that it will take more than just extra pay to alleviate the pilot shortage.

Akins projects that over the next 10 years approximately 18,000 pilots will retire from the four largest U.S. carriers: American, Delta, Southwest and United. 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.

This year, the Big Four, along with JetBlue, Alaska, Spirit and cargo operators FedEx and UPS, will hire more than 4,200 pilots, according to a Fapa.aero analysis, with thousands of those coming from the regional ranks.

Smith said that while pay raises will increase the number of pilots willing to take jobs at regional carriers, more needs to be done. Two significant steps, he said, would be for Congress to reduce the number of flying hours a pilot must have to get a commercial license and for major airlines and their regional partners to offer more defined pathways up the pilot ladder.

American has done that over the past couple years, adding flow-through to the mainline for pilots at Piedmont and PSA, meaning that once hired at the regional carrier, pilots can work their way up to American's aircraft based upon seniority, without having to sit for an interview.

"We see flow-throughs developing at various smaller airlines, and I expect it will be industry practice very soon, by necessity," he said.

Numerous regional airlines also work with flight-training schools to offer partial tuition reimbursement. For example, Horizon, SkyWest and Mesa are among 11 airlines that offer at least $11,000 reimbursement to students at the ATP Flight School, which has 40 training centers across the U.S.

Akins said airlines need to go further, training pilots entirely out of their own coffers, before pilot supply can begin catching up with demand.

In the meantime, he said, the market forces that have led to the surge in regional pilot pay are also changing the carrier's business models, which had depended on low wages to keep operational costs lows.

The result is likely to be more turmoil in the regional industry in the near-term as the carriers, most of which are independently owned, struggle to make a profit.

"On the one hand, they need to raise wages to get new hires to operate," Akins said. "On the other, increased wages could kill business."

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