AviationPilots union says problem is low wages

Training rule blamed for pilot shortage

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Jacksonville University students Jason Closky, left, and Bill Luce, right, receive a simulator lesson from their professor, Chad Kendall.
Jacksonville University students Jason Closky, left, and Bill Luce, right, receive a simulator lesson from their professor, Chad Kendall. Photo Credit: Jacksonville University School of Aviation

In 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating under the banner of Continental Connection, crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, killing all 49 aboard and one person on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board would eventually conclude that the crash had resulted from the errors of the plane’s two pilots, who did not respond properly to cockpit warnings that the aircraft was about to stall.

The Colgan crash led to a reexamination of training requirements for pilots at regional airlines, resulting in a rule mandated by Congress and the FAA in 2013 requiring that U.S. commercial pilots hold an Air Transport Pilot certificate, requiring 1,500 hours of flight experience. Previously, they had to hold just a commercial certificate, requiring 250 hours of flight time.

Now, as regional airlines and the small airports they serve find themselves increasingly hampered by a pilot shortage, the airlines broadly agree that the 1,500-hour rule is one cause of the problem. The rule, both they and airport representatives say, needs to be modified in order to make entry-level recruitment more manageable.

But the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA), the world’s largest pilots union, disagrees, asserting that the rule makes commercial air service safer. The real cause of the problems that regional airlines are experiencing, the union says, is not a shortage of pilots but rather the low pay they are offering. Central to the debate are the rule itself and the indisputable fact that regional airlines and airports, for whatever the reason, are struggling.

Among the major regional airline players, SkyWest and Republic Airways, both of which fly routes under contract with American, Delta and United, reduced capacity in 2015 by 6.1% and 11%, respectively, company reports show.

In October, citing pilot shortages, Seaport Airlines stopped flying from Memphis to Tupelo, Miss., and Muscle Shoals, Ala., even though they were under contract with the federal government and receiving subsidies as part of the Essential Air Service program, which was designed to maintain the access of small towns to the aviation network.

Meanwhile, since the second quarter of 2013, 29 small airports in the continental U.S. have lost commercial service, according to the trade group American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).

In a recent financial report, Great Lakes Airlines said that post-Colgan regulations, including stricter mandates on pilot rest and the 1,500-hour rule, had “created an industrywide shortage of qualified pilots, negatively affecting our level of operations and financial performance.”

But not everyone believes that the 1,500-hour rule is having that much impact on pilot recruitment.

For one thing, the rule includes exceptions. Military pilots can become commercial co-pilots with 750 hours of flight time, and graduates of qualified bachelor-degree aviation programs are eligible after 1,000 hours.

Significantly, both Ken Byrnes, chair of the flight department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Chad Kendall, an assistant aeronautics professor at Florida’s Jacksonville University, said that regional airlines have often required minimums of well above 250 flight hours by their own choosing. Kendall, for example, said he was required to have 1,000 hours of flight time before gaining entry into the business in 2006.

“The airlines would change the requirements based upon the market,” Byrnes said.

Under the existing requirements, new co-pilots must have logged 50 hours of cockpit time in multiengine aircraft, but the remainder can be attained on single-engine craft such as the tiny Cessna Skyhawk. In order to obtain the Air Transport Pilot certificate, pilots also must complete certificate course work and testing, including 10 hours in a simulator, Byrnes said.

He said it’s too early to determine if the stricter training requirements have increased safety in the U.S. skies, though he pointed to the 2012 Pilot Source Study, conducted ahead of the 2013 implementation of the new requirements, which showed inconclusive results on whether pilots who had logged more than 1,500 hours performed better in regional airline pilot training than those who had 500 to 1,500 hours.

What the study did show is that pilots with four-year aviation degrees perform better than those who don’t have them.

Both Kendall and Byrne are emphatic that the quality of one’s training is far more important than the quantity when it comes to preparing pilots for commercial service.

There is one thing about the 1,500-hour rule that ALPA, regional airlines like Great Lakes and the American Association of Airport Executives agree on: The economics of it don’t work. Aspiring pilots often spend $150,000 to $200,000 on training and flight hours, said ALPA Resource Coordinator Paul Ryder.

Despite agreeing on that, the various entities disagree on the solution. ALPA blames the airlines for low entry-level pay and says that there are more than enough certified U.S. pilots to go around.

Under a deal that Republic reached with it pilots’ union in October, new pilots will get $40 per flight hour. But that’s industry-leading, and according to the online forum Airline Pilot Central, Republic, like other regionals, only guarantees 75 hours of flight time per month, meaning its pilots could earn less than $36,000 per year.

As of September, ALPA estimated that first-year pay at SkyWest affiliate ExpressJet, as well as regionals Mesa and Atlantic Southeast, at less than $21,000.

Ryder said one thing that has increased recruitment difficulties at regional airlines is the wide availability of information on their pay rates on the Internet.

“The regional carriers run a business, and their business plans have to be predicated on sound economics,” he said.

Even so, the Regional Airlines Association (RAA) and the AAAE say that tweaks to the 1,500-hour rule would help with recruitment. The RAA is careful to note that it is not asking Congress to change the 1,500-hour rule. What it does want is for the FAA to approve an alternative airline-based training path, which, like college programs, would provide a lower flight-hour requirement.

The program would “provide better experience for pilots through gold-standard training programs, presenting considerable improvement in safety over the current system,” RAA President Faye Malarkey Black said.

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