ExpressJet Tells United It Needs to Reduce Express Flying Due to Pilot Shortage

The impact of new rest rules and higher minimum hour requirements for commercial pilots in the US continues to have bigger and bigger implications. Last week, I wrote about the severe issues Great Lakes was facing, but now it’s much larger ExpressJet that’s being forced to reduce its flying… though there’s something a little fishy here.

Express Pilot Shortage

This revelation stemmed from my post on United’s decision to blame the new pilot rules for the timing of the announced dismantling of the airline’s Cleveland hub. I had reached out to ExpressJet, United’s largest partner in Cleveland and one of its largest regional feeders overall, to see if the airline was forced to cancel flying due to a pilot shortage.

I heard back from Jarek Beem at the airline with the following. (The response didn’t arrive until after the post went live, so if you read it before I could update, you may not have seen this.)

While the new pilot qualification rules implemented in August 2013, along with the compounding effect of the new FAR117 flight time and rest requirements, have created an increased need for pilots industry-wide, ExpressJet Airlines continues to attract qualified pilots.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well the next afternoon, the story changed abruptly when Jarek sent me a follow-up:

Brett, Your story doesn’t fully reflect the situation regarding ExpressJet’s flying on behalf of United Airlines. While ExpressJet continues to attract qualified pilots, we did in fact inform United in January that we need to reduce our planned United Express flying. ExpressJet’s situation is by no means unique in the regional industry.

Well that’s a different story. Apparently this pilot issue is worse than anyone thought if ExpressJet can’t even fly its full schedule. ExpressJet isn’t at the bottom of the pay scale by any means. Sure a first year first officer flying 80 hours a month will barely clear $22,000 a year but that jumps $10,000 in the second year and goes up from there. Captains make significantly more. Pilots won’t get rich there, but it’s a huge improvement in pay over an airline like Great Lakes.

That could mean one of two things is happening here. Either this pilot issue is a permanent one that’s becoming very big, very quickly to the point where it’s impacting mainstream regionals or it’s temporary and ExpressJet simply wasn’t prepared for the new regulations and didn’t hire enough. If it’s the former, then that’s scary for the whole industry. If it’s the latter, then that just adds to the strangeness of the situation.

If it is indeed temporary, then it shouldn’t require United to shut its hub several months out from now. It’ll just take a little time to get more pilots onboard. But then again, if that is the case, it could just be another convenient excuse for United.

That might also explain why the story changed so quickly. Maybe someone over at United gave ExpressJet a nudge. I’m very confused by this. Adding to the confusion is that United spokesperson Rahsaan Johnson sent me a note (and left a voicemail) shortly after my post went live about what I had written. Though I was traveling, we did have an email exchange. In that, Rahsaan said this.

With Cleveland’s continuing losses, yes, there was a chance of future reductions, but there were no predetermined plans. You focus on ExpressJet and Commutair and don’t consider the fact that we operate with a half-dozen more regional operators across North America. The pilot-hiring issues industrywide, not just for one or two regional carriers with significant operations in Cleveland, drive the need to reduce regional flying nationwide. The right thing to do for the business is to reduce the most challenged markets and concentrate the remaining flying in more profitable markets.

Though it doesn’t explicitly say it, this to me makes it sound like ExpressJet wasn’t the one having issues and I was looking in the wrong place.

The only thing we now know for sure is that ExpressJet has indeed told United it has to reduce flying. Whether that is just a temporary issue or not remains unclear. Anyone else have any theories on this one?

[Original begging photo via Shutterstock]

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