The Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Republic Airways Holdings last week could be just the tip of the iceberg for the regional airline industry. Those carriers are struggling to maintain their existing fleets and route networks in the face of a significant shortage of pilots, according to their trade organization.
Republic, whose operating subsidiaries (Republic Airlines and Shuttle America) fly under the banners of American Eagle, United Express and Delta Connection, said it got into a financial squeeze because a pilot shortage forced it to ground a number of aircraft – which it still had to pay for even though the planes were producing no revenue.
And now the Washington-based Regional Airlines Association, which represents carriers that provide 45 percent of all the nation’s commercial flights, is warning that Republic’s situation is not unique.
The shortage of pilots “is endemic throughout the regional airline industry,” the group said in a statement this week. “As unprecedented numbers of major airline pilots reach mandatory retirement age, those airlines are hiring regional airline pilots at a rate that outpaces the supply of new pilots available to regional airline flight decks…The number of qualified applicants for jobs at regional airlines is far below demand,” even though some regional carriers are raising salaries and offering retention bonuses.
The organization noted that regional carriers got plenty of applications last year from would-be pilots who met federal standards, but “far fewer were able to successfully withstand the regional airlines’ own screening and training process.” FAA experience and training standards for new pilots and first officers were raised significantly a few years ago in the wake of a Colgan Air crash in 2009 and other incidents.
The trade journal Aviation Week agreed that there is a problem here “that might lead to some smaller U.S. cities losing their air service.” It noted that starting pay for regional airline pilots has been increasing in recent years, but only to about $30,000, so it’s no wonder that those pilots bolt for higher-paying gigs at major airlines as soon as they can. But the publication noted it’s not easy for the regionals to raise pilot pay when they are locked into revenue-sharing agreements with the major carriers that they serve. (By contrast, the typical elementary school teacher makes about $44,000.)
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at the major airlines, is having none of this. It says its data “contradicts any claim that a pilot shortage is causing airlines to stop serving smaller communities and discredits calls by some airlines to weaken pilot training and qualification rules.”
Readers: Did you know the pilot of your high-tech regional jet might make less than a schoolteacher? Do you ever worry about the safety of regional airline travel? Post comments below.
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