Fixing the Pilot Shortage Without Increasing Pay

Labor Relations

The talk about pilot shortages seems to have run its course in traditional media. After all, there’s not much more to say right? There’s a pilot shortage coming and we’re all doomed. How often can you say the same thing over and over again? (Don’t answer that, CNN.) But of course, there is more to discuss here. In many reports, the only answer seems to be an increase in pilot pay to make it more attractive. I don’t buy it. I think there are other ways.

Pilot Shortage

Before I get into that, how about a brief recap on what is causing the shortage? First, we have a rush of pilot retirements kicking in. Then we have the dramatic increase in the minimum number of flying hours required to get hired. But did you know there’s more about to happen? In August, there’s a whole new slew of training required for pilots, and it’s going to be really expensive.

So, uh, who is going to fly all these airplanes? Many argue that increasing pay is the key here, but I am far from convinced that’s needed. And I’m not alone. I realize this was now a couple months ago, but I can’t help but go back to the Phoenix Aviation Symposium where this was the hot topic on one of the panels.

The key seems to be understanding what it is that pilots really want. You’ve probably heard the fun-filled statistic that a manager at McDonald’s makes more money than a pilot in his first year at a regional. But that misses the point. Jerry Glass, a consultant who headed labor relations at US Airways during the last couple of years before the airline was bought by America West, points out that a McDonald’s manager has nowhere near the career earning potential of a commercial pilot. Starting salary doesn’t tell you the whole picture.

In Jerry’s mind, pilots want two things. First, they want to know how quickly they can become a captain. Then second, they want to know how quickly they can get to a major airline. Sure it’s about having a better lifestyle and getting paid more, but the way to do that isn’t raising starting wages. It’s making sure pilots have a relatively quick path to move up.

Of course, it’s easy to say that if all the pilot has to do is live in a crash pad eating nothing but ramen for a couple years. The bigger issue is that they have to pour a ton of money in at the start. And with these new rules coming in August, the amount you have to pay to even be eligible to be hired by an airline will increase by thousands.

Students pay a silly amount of money to become a doctor but that’s because a) they’ll get paid in the end and b) there’s access to financing the help fund the education until they do get paid. Airline pilots don’t have that, or at least haven’t had that for years because they haven’t had the opportunity to move up. Even if they can get a loan, they might not be making enough money to pay it back down the line.

One way to fix this problem is to subsidize training in one form or another. I asked Captain Tim Canoll, Executive Administrator of ALPA, just that in Phoenix. His response? “I believe it’s a viable solution.”

At little Silver Airways, the airline has had to get creative. The airline pays a $12,000 hiring bonus (that’s one way to offset training costs). The airline is also signing agreements with schools to give preference to their graduates.

According to Dave Pflieger, President and CEO of Silver Airways, the little guys struggle the most. “[Low cost carriers] and big guys have no problems because [they] hire all our pilots.”

Dave takes what Jerry Glass said further, and he backs it up with the data they get from exit interviews with their departing pilots. According to Silver’s pilots, the biggest issues are, in order, career progression, schedule, and then pay comes in third.

I think Dave put it well, “pay is an issue but it’s not the issue.” But when Dave says the big guys have no problems hiring, he’s half right. It’s true, they have no problem filling their own airplanes. But planning departments are worried about the possibility that they won’t be able to get enough feeders in the future from regional partners.

Most recently, Delta entered into a creative agreement with Endeavor, its wholly-owned regional subsidiary. Delta is basically planting people at Endeavor to assist with hiring, and it’s going to hire according to Delta standards. In return for that, hired pilots “will receive a commitment to be hired by Delta in the future.”

This kind of thing helps potential pilots to think about their true earning potential over time. You can work for less for awhile if you can see where your future lies, and that helps pilots to justify at least some of the training costs. But as those costs keep rising, this career path may not be enough. It might require subsidizing training. Of course, when the industry hits a bust cycle again and layoffs and furloughs start mounting, then what? There’s no guarantee of exactly when these pilots will move up to mainline. So it’s hard to know exactly where this ends. But it seems to me that a pay increase isn’t necessarily the answer.

[Original Beech 1900 image via Shutterstock]

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59 comments on “Fixing the Pilot Shortage Without Increasing Pay

  1. Would making seniority “travel” between airlines help? I can’t imagine it’s a huge draw to the profession when any layoff or liquidation at any of your employers means you get kicked back down to the bottom of the proverbial totem pole if you hire on elsewhere, no matter how long you’ve been working, and no matter what you did before. In no other industry I’m aware of would a company take a seasoned professional and bust him/her down to the same pay as an utterly-green hire.

    1. The unions will never let that happen. That quirk of this industry is the only reason the union still makes a lot of sense in this day and age. If pilots could switch companies without a ridiculous pay decrease, then the union would become obsolete.

      1. Then it would be like every other job met by skilled professionals. As an engineer if I switch jobs, I’m not suddenly treated like a kid fresh out of college. Basically no other skilled professional is either. It absolutely blows my mind that pilots put up with such a ludicrous system that locks them into an employer.

        The only real reasons I can see that it sticks around is that it acts as a salary cost stabilizer for the airlines and it keeps some union guys in a job somewhere. I can’t see where it actually benefits the pilots….

        1. Many large scale industries determine things on seniority, from factories, to construction crews, to hospitals. Why? Because it is the easiest way to deal with layoffs and contractions without getting sued. Seniority is an arbitrary, but in court, totally defensible determination for laying off people. Let’s say you don’t have a seniority system, downsize a unit in a hospital, and x,y,z staff gets kept and a,b,c get fired. Now let’s say that x,y,z are male and a,b,c are female. Instant lawsuit. It is also the greatest protector from the whims of management. It is the same reason why tenure exists in many fields; because administration and management cannot be trusted to not attempt to try to lay waste to everyone hired by a predecessor.

          1. And yet in fields where it doesn’t exist, we operate just fine and don’t have those problems. The argument seems to be based on the assumption of how people might act so try again…

      2. Seniority is often the rule in many industries, as seniority is an equal, though not necessarily fair, method of determining what happens in a round of layoffs and contraction. You’ll never get rid of seniority lists because no one wants to get laid off (a career risk as a pilot) only to have a junior pilot be kept due to concerns about health care/retirement costs. People forget a large reason for many layoffs and contractions are not just raw pay, but also retirement/health benefits, both of which get exponentially higher for older pilots and employees with families etc. If management could pay a junior pilot that doesn’t raise their health insurance rate and is not under the old defined benefit plans, they most certainly will.

        1. It’s basically only the rule in places where the union rules. Outside the sphere of a union, it basically doesn’t exist. Again, we don’t have that in the engineering world. If you get laid off it’s not because of some BS seniority list where somebody else has been here 2 months longer than you have, it’s because you didn’t have the knowledge and skills for the work that’s now available.

          And the idea of eliminating whole swathes of people in the organization based on “time in grade” is ludicrous. Getting rid of all the gray beards means you have no mentors left in the organization and getting rid of all the young guys means you have nobody left to train up to be a gray beard. For any organization to function on the long term, you need a healthy mix of old and young and everything in between.

  2. ive sent silver my resume (via email) a number of times to 3 or 4 different people in their HR and they never even bothered to reply or even acknowledge! the same with republic. i send an email to airlines in asia and they reply in 15 minutes. another problem in the usa (apart from the low pay) is that its too intrusive, i.e. driving record, credit report etc. other countries dont bother with that and if someone just got their green card, they have no history and chance to have made a mistake etc. also if they would simply just raise the starting pay to 40k a year they would have absolutely no problems finding pilots. ask fed ex/ups/delta/spirit etc if they are having trouble finding pilots !? great lakes pays 14 k a year and they say the pilot shortage is industry wide….nooooo its not

    1. I know a blog comment is not a resume, but there might be some typos or something in your resume that is causing HR to ditch it. (Not quite sure this is a valid requirement.)

      I’d suggest having someone else read your resume. (I’ve personally caught typos in resumes of folks who have their Masters degree, nobody is immune.)

    2. I can tell you, as someone who worked in HR at an airline, the sheer volume of resumes we would receive when we posted for pilot was enormous. We would open it once every year to year and a half, and work through those resumes until we opened it up again. Stay positive, realize they are probably deluged and probably have a tiny recruitment staff. Good luck!

      1. True, but the large number of resumes is no excuse to not at least acknowlege to the applicant that you’ve received it.

        1. Well, if it is an automated applicant tracking system, it should just shoot out an email once you sign in and submit an application. If it is just emailing or sending a resume, then it can take dozens of man hours to manually send out notices. Recruitment departments are notoriously understaffed (and are the first to suffer layoffs) at airlines.

  3. I realize that the POTENTIAL earnings of a new pilot are higher than a McDonald’s manager, but what % of pilots end up moving up to long-haul wide body flying?

    The POTENTIAL earnings of a star high school baseball player are massive if they get a career in the majors, but most don’t make it to pro and most of those that do play AAA or lower for way less money.

    If you’re smart and hard working, I tenacity is all you need to make it up to managing a McDonalds,and regional managers according to Glassdoor get up to $124k (WITHOUT having that student debt). So it’s a numbers game there as well.

    1. Agreed. If you are 18 with talent, drive, and access to $200k needed to get your Airline Pilot Transport license, there are much better options than living in poverty for the next 15-20 years and maybe, eventually earning a decent wage.

    2. TimH – You don’t need to be a long haul wide body captain to make good money. No captain at Delta should make less than $150,000 a year assuming 75 hours a month. Even a second year first officer makes about $85,000. So if you work for a major, you’ll do just fine. The key is getting up to the major.

  4. Increasing pay will not fix this problem right now, but it is certainly the biggest reason we have this problem, and remains the strongest solution to this problem long-term. The other problem and solution comes from the fact that an airline pilot career is no longer desirable, even if good pay returns to the industry.

    In your article you bring up career earnings, and I’ve got to say they are no longer that good. The major airlines just started hiring, after having pilots furloughed for over ten years. That is over ten years they didn’t hire any pilots, so pilots who finished training over the past 15+ years have not gotten into the major airlines, have not seen good pay, and they won’t for a long time yet. The pilots the major airlines are hiring now are mostly senior pilots at the low-cost and regional airlines, just beginning to make good money and schedules, and now they will start over with pay in the $20k/yr range and the worst schedules. These pilots are middle-aged, still not getting big bucks, and very unlikely to spend much time making the top pay before their retirement age hits. That is how the tiered airline pilot system works: they start over at the bottom after over a decade, maybe a couple times. By the time the major airline start hiring more recent hires from the regionals, the regionals will be out of pilots. And that won’t be good for this nation’s economy, it will be really bad.

    Pilots at the major airlines for the past 15 years have also been stagnant, over half of them have been First Officers for 15 years+, not making the big bucks, and will have a short run as Captains now that they are all in their 50s. There are a fortunate few who stagnated at the top of the major airlines for the past 15 years, a very small number that every new pilot hopes they will become. The airlines and pilot training industry like to point to them when they entice young pilots into the career, but young people like to check things out on the internet before jumping, and that is where things get ugly.

    I said the airline pilot career is no longer desirable: Google it like you are 18 and considering different career options. Pilots are blogging and posting about their work and lives, and it is not flattering. Their jobs are challenging, and getting harder, and airlines are fighting for and getting lower pay and more work from them. They are increasingly away from home, increasingly unpaid for time away. They are staying in cheaper and more dangerous places, getting less support from airlines when things go wrong. Young people are increasingly valuing freedom and time with family and friends, and looking at a career that is getting highly restrictive, intrusive, and remote. Travelling is getting less romantic and more dangerous and unpleasant, and travelling for a living is not attractive.

    Perhaps the biggest challenge to attracting young people to the pilot career is the most likely short-term solution to this pilot shortage: automation. Three of the five original airline cockpit crew have been replaced by automation, and there is a constant stream of media reports of pilot-less aircraft, including airliners. It is increasingly likely that a pilot entering pilot training today will see opportunities for good jobs decrease significantly, and there are few good career options outside flying that airline pilots are well qualified for. Add to that the wild swings in pilot hiring over the past 50 years, odds are slim that a new pilot will do well, no matter how skilled.

    The last problem the industry faces is the lack of interest in flying among young people. Flight simulator games were once the top application on home computers, but now don’t even show up on lists of most popular games. We have fewer Americans getting pilot licenses now than in the 1960s. Most amazing: the Air Force Academy isn’t getting enough interest from students to fill their quota of pilot training slots. The U.S. has a robust pilot training industry, the envy of every foreign airline industry, and it is over 90% filled with foreign students with commitments to foreign airlines. Of the American students, almost 50% are over 40 years old, instructors refer to them as “bucket list” students. They aren’t likely to head to the airlines.

    So no, pilot pay alone probably won’t fix this problem alone, but it will have to be part of the fix. Most of the fixes being proposed by the airline industry are aimed at keeping pilot costs low, and they are likely to get them.

  5. So Jerry think that a pilots two most pressing questions are upgrade and when they can get hired by a major, but doesn’t see that both of those issues have to do with pay? Normally upgrading comes with a fairly sizable pay increase for doing pretty much the same job you were beforehand. Likewise, your pay definitely goes up after year one at a major. Who among us would choose to stay at job A that pays $50,000 a year when we could do exactly the same work at job B and make $130,000…with more days off, and much better work rules?

    I think it really boils down to a combination of pay and quality of life. At the regional level the combination of low pay, brutal schedules, and a push by the company to keep costs attractive enough to win future contracts just doesn’t appeal to most people as a viable place to make your career. There are plenty of pilots on the corporate side of aviation that happily work for the same amount of money regional as the average regional captain/fo, but they’re home every night, are generally appreciated by the owner, and their jobs have more stability.

    As far as the Endeavor/Delta hiring agreement goes, I don’t think it will do much to retain pilots. AA and Eagle have had agreements for around four years now, and they’re still failing to meet their recruitment/rentention goals. Just because you have that tiny carrot dangling out in front of you doesn’t mean you’ll go chasing it through the swamp.

  6. 15 years ago when Regionals were 20% of the flights, moving up to a major was almost a sure thing. Now with regionals at 50-60% of the flights for majors [At ORD and DEN, UA Express is 70%] the chance of moving up is far far less likely. To eliminate the chances of a pilot shortage, AA, DL and UA will have to operate their own planes with their own pilots and get the mainline to regional ratio back to 80-20.

    1. Mainline pilots still outnumber regional pilots about 3:1, so the opportunity for progression is definitely still there, even if the ratio of flying is out of whack. I wonder though, if scope holds at the E175/CRJ9 size aircraft as everything smaller fades away, what point is their in continuing to have a regional at all? While pilots at the majors have, collectively, never held the line on the scope, it’s not totally unreasonable to think they’ll balk at E190 or CS100 size aircraft in Express colors, and regionals will end up stuck with 70-90 seat planes and nothing else.

  7. Interesting that at the jobs I’ve had (in the decades) since I was 18, no one ever complained about salary as much as working conditions. More money is nice, but the every day working conditions is what effects how you feel about the company overall.

  8. I work in a field that requires 5-7 years of collegiate level education + another 3-5 years of apprenticeship (i.e. low pay) before taking a 7 part license exam, and after all that (if you succeed) you are finally a “professional” in the eyes of the industry and regulatory bodies. So it’s a long road for anyone just starting out but the colleges are filled to capacity and the oversupply of entry level talent is pushing down wages at the low end. Even for experienced professionals the competition is fierce and wages are competitive.

    Using my personal experience as comparison I don’t think you can blame the wages or prospect of wages. If it’s a career field that has high demand people will go into it regardless of their earning potential or the difficulty in “getting there.” Honestly, the problem with pilots is, I don’t think there are as many plane nerds out there today as there was 25 years ago. Working for Google is glamorous, United/Delta/American not so much…and regionals…forget about it. Also, the media paints the airlines in a pretty negative light, for incidents/accidents to the minor issues like lost baggage and weather delays.

    1. Good points. The airline pilot job has always been tough, living out of a suitcase and away from family, they don’t have such a high divorce rate without reason. But airline pilots have never been away from home so much, and their time on the road has never been as unpleasant. Even plane nerds don’t want to be airline pilots these days, perhaps especially plane nerds. The more you look into the careers and lives of airline pilots, the less you will want to be one.

  9. I may be sowing my ignorance, but it seems that another way to address the compensation / lifestyle issues would be to find a way to provide better housing options for crews.

  10. I can deal with eating Ramen for a a year. I can’t deal with working my way out of the Ramen diet, my company going bankrupt, and eating Ramen again at another company… after a few months on the unemployment line. It’s a misnomer to call the $20/hr that a first year FO makes “starting wages” when in reality it’s what you make for the first year you are with a specific company. As growth at a company stagnates and the labor force increases in seniority, the major affiliate looks at the rising wages and says, “Oops, sorry, we can get a better deal with another carrier. Good luck!”

    1. The exactly what’s happening with Envoy [American Eagle], happened at Comair and at Endeavor. There is no shortage of regionals. They are like the umemployed men in the thirites waitng around the Golden Gate Bridge to replace the one who falls to his death.

  11. I have to be honest, I think Jerry Glass is an idiot, and so is any person who thinks that “the two things pilots want” are anything but proxies for more money and better quality of life. One has to be careful how they write and interpret the surveys, because both money and quality of life are tied to bigger equipment. Regional guys get their buts kicked flying in and out of the hub all day long, probably maxing out their duty day limits (~14 hours) to get in that 8 hours of flying. Major airline pilots have much more efficient schedules, flying much fewer legs in a more compact amount of time. And not only are the schedules better, but so is the pay in the bigger planes.

    So saying “pay is most important” really covers one issue (pay). Saying “I want to move up” is really killing two birds with one stone.

    Brett paraphrases and says, “Give them a relatively quick path to move up.” Easier said than done. That requires growth or attrition. Attrition is predictable, unless you want to increase it by making life miserable and forcing the captains out. Growth, well, that costs money and if the economy won’t support it, you’re screwed.

    Pilots need a good consolation prize. I took my pilots license and went to work in government sponsored research. My job pays pretty good (better than just about any regional pilot out there), and the quality of life is AWESOME. While I may never make $200,000 sitting at my desk, I bet my cumulative lifetime earnings will kick the arse of a majority of pilots.

    1. The pay is better in the bigger planes, but pilots at the majors flying domestic typically get five-hours paid flight time for a long day, usually just meeting the ten-hour minimum hotel time. Southwest does better, nearly 8-hours flight time in a day, but not always. A lot of days well exceed 16-hours in uniform on company property for that 5-hours pay, so doing the math, that $100/hour for mid-level First Officers, and $200/hour for senior captains, works out to less than most skilled workers are paid. For quality of life, airline pilots are gone from home in austere conditions more than workers in Canada’s northern oil fields or on offshore oil rigs. Those jobs pay well and are great when you are young and single. If flying paid six-figures right away it would be worth doing, but it pays less than fast-food salary for many years. You made the right choice.

      1. I wonder if we’ll ever see pay adjusted away from flying hours and instead to report in / final work done. I really don’t get how the industry works expecting folks to work for time they’re not paid for. (And it probably stays legal, since it balances out at more than minimum wage. Although I’m curious if 1st year FOs at small regionals might fall below minimum wage and have a legal case against the airline..)

        1. I think a lot of pilots would be perfectly happy if they got paid 100% by rig, instead of by flight hours, but only if you set the rigs reasonably well. The problem with this is it doesn’t work well with how the regionals themselves get paid. They get paid by the block hour, and when they bid RFPs they bid it based on the block hour. It’s a necessary part of the RFP process for regionals to have as many of their costs as possible be tied directly to block hours flown so they can accurately bid.

    2. Dan – Maybe I was unfair to Jerry by not being more clear. Of course those are proxies for more money and a better life, but we’re talking about starting pay here. You can increase starting pay but I don’t think it’s going to solve the problems. Pilots don’t want to stick around at these little regionals – they want higher pay and a better quality of life in the long run and that won’t happen in these places. They want to move up. So you could pay a first year guy $25k instead of $15k but I don’t think it changes the motivation to get more pilots onboard. They need a faster, more reliable path forward first and foremost.

    3. Jerry Glass is a consultant who works predominantly for the airlines that belong to Airlines for America (an industry lobbying group) these airlines have a vested interest in keeping costs (including pilot costs) as low as possible at all airlines, but regional airlines in specific. The Majors typically pit regionals against each other in contract flying proposals that currently provide more than half the departures domestically today. So everything Jerry Glass has to say should be viewed from the perspective of what is best for Major Airlines management teams.

  12. I have a hard time reading this and taking it seriously. As a 7 year regional airline FO, I am a little insulted by your view on this topic. You quote airline CEOs and trust they will give you, or anyone, an honest answer. They are master manipulators who would fit right in with the do-nothing congress. If you really want to know what it would take to “fix the pilot shortage” then maybe you should ask, and quote, some current regional airline pilots or potential pilots coming out of school into the job force.
    Pay is absolutely a huge factor. Just like a previous commenter said, moving up to captain is directly tied to making more money. It’s a promotion. So yes, money is the key.

  13. Pilots–join the crowd. Take the journeyman air traffic controller, the long distance trucker, the elementary and secondary school teacher, the family doctor, the family farm ownerer. Terrific jobs, but where do they find these people?

    For the pilot, from where I stand, management is made up of idiots. And the regionals, OMG. No Bob Crandalls, no Herb Kellehers, no Fred Smiths, much anywhere. Of course, most of us would have died working for those guys and their egos. Can’t imagine what this industry will look like tomorrow. But, if you love what you’re doing, the pay…well, easy for me to say!

    Probably the most interesting pitot forums out there are those involving Silver. Is there an airline that sort of seems to generate more negative pilot comments than this one? Go, you little Saab, go!

  14. Do the math and you will find that the pay of both pilots on a typical regional flight adds up to about $5 per passenger, total and often less. That’s about what we pay for the TSA 9/11 fee now, and less than half of what it will be in July, so we are not talking about much money here.

    I was once offered a job by a regional. I wouldn’t have applied if I wasn’t willing to work for the low pay. What got me is that they couldn’t even tell me where I would be based until after the training. Doing so, like so many other ways to help pilot’s life, wouldn’t have cost them anything. So you make a good point about pay not being the only factor.

      1. Ummm….NO! If pilot X is a Captain for American, unrestricted free agency would allow him/her to move over to Delta as a Captain, without having to start over at the bottom of Delta’s seniority list…..The other alternative would be to have an Industry-wide seniority list, in addition to the seniority list at each individual carrier. Of course, ALPA would NEVER go for that. As a result, pilots will continue to cannabalize each other while Managements sit back and watch amusedly.

  15. How can anyone afford to become a pilot when you must spend three to five years after college graduation accumulating hours? It’s not feasible to get a four year aviation degree (which runs about $75k in additional fees beyond tuition) and have to repay student loans on a CFI’s wage, and do so for years. Nor is it feasible to get a 4 year non-aviation degree and then attempt to build up the full 1500 hours independently. Top that off with a $20k ATP program coming after years of living in poverty.

    Pilots’ unions are off base if they think increasing pay levels throughout the industry will attract more people to it. It’s not the top end pay, or even the entry level pay that is the barrier, it’s the inability to suffer the training debt long enough to begin repayment, and really the inability to acquire that debt in the first place. If better starting pay prompted banks to offer student loans for flight time the unions might have a real argument, but would they ever allow a student loan to be paid to an FBO for a few years’ worth of aircraft rentals post-graduation? Unlikely.

    The total flight training costs of all future airline pilots runs about $250M/yr now, and will likely peak at about $1B per year. Who pays that money and under what terms will totally define the future of the regional industry. Regionals have no free cash to pay it, but majors do. My best guess is that the majors themselves will offer training contracts that are either forgiven with years of service or else paid for via a wage reduction. Either would undo the leverage the unions hope to wield. Perhaps a third party will fund training in exchange for a share of wages. I’m reminded of Richard Bach’s fictional School for Perfection, which would train anyone with their heart in aviation for free, and in return for a superb education the graduates were expected to give back to the school as their careers allowed.

    Cranky, it’d be interesting to see you talk about how the pilot shortage is influenced by the trend towards aircraft upgauging. RSMs are increasing nationwide only slowly, yet the majors are replacing 50 seaters with 76, A319s with A321s, 737-700s with 737-900s, and so on. If average aircraft size is increasing faster than RSMs there’d be a reduction in demand for pilots.

    PS, the Endeavor flow through is fool’s gold. The flow through requirement of 2 years CA time for any pilot hired now won’t be met in any reasonable time, and in fact might be a slower way to get to Delta than just random chance. Shrinking companies are terrible places to upgrade at, meanwhile the retirements over the next 6-7 years are approximately equal to the number of regional pilots seeking to move up.

    1. Eric C – Well said. Regarding the trend toward mainline, you’re definitely right. The number of pilots needed will go down in the short term and they run bigger airplanes on fewer frequencies. But there are also just so many retirements coming up and so few pilots in the pipeline thanks to the short term rules, that I’d think that there should still be strong demand in the near future. Just not as strong as it could have been.

  16. I’m curious how much of an advantage the wholly owned regionals give airlines for hiring pilots? If so it’ll be interesting to see how things play out.

    DL is obviously playing that card with Endeavor. AS and their regional provider QX are both in Alaska Air Group. American Airlines Group may be in the best situation with three regionals. United Continental Group may be in the worst situation as they do not own any of the regional providers.

  17. Just to mess things up a bit, I wonder if there really IS a long term pilot shortage. With capacity reduction, larger regional jets (with a theoretical 3 to 2 reduction of frames) and some movement to mainline flying, the “problem” may never materialize. Many small cities will likely lose service, but that’s been a problem for years.

  18. Dear Cranky,

    Thank you for addressing this subject of a “pilot shortage,” but you’re just scratching the surface!

    Why are the airlines more fixated on spot-lighting this “shortage,” instead of announcing solutions? Delta, United, American, and US Airways have over 12,000 applications on file. Does this problem even exist? Or is this a propagandized ploy to trigger political pressure?

    Was not the “Fair Treatment of Experience Pilots Act” (aka. age 65) really about allowing foreign airline ICAO compliant age 65 flight crews continued access to US markets? Similarly, is not the pilot shortage really about foreign pilots, foreign ownership, and possibly outright cabotage?

    The pilot shortage may be instantly solved, to the point of furloughing hundreds of pilots via up-gaging & frequency reduction. Inflation continues to usher the demise of the 50 seat jet, but what percentage of regional fleets are 50 seat jets? How many 50 seat jets will Air Wisconsin, ExpressJet, Envoy, GoJets, Mesa, PSA, SkyWest, and TranStates remove from service in the next 5 years? Delta may well shed several 100 regional aircraft in it’s upcoming pilot working agreement. American may achieve similar results through it’s pending Joint Collective Bargaiing Agreement with APA and US Airways.

    Thank you so much for your excellent and wide ranging analysis Cranky, but please delve more into this subject!!!

    I offer you this analysis for consideration, and critique:

    Stay cranky,

    1. 12,000 applications on file is something we apparently have to trust the airlines on, there are no hard numbers on it, and it has been disputed. But if it is true, it only points out that nearly every regional and low-cost airline First Officer and junior Captain is actively seeking to leave their airline, with very few replacements coming through training. And the majors need every one of those 12k, plus half-again more just to replace their retiring pilots.

      The entire population of regional airline pilots isn’t nearly enough for the major airlines, and if they do go to the majors it will shut down the regionals. Regional airlines carry more than half the airline passengers in the U.S., and over 70% of U.S. cities served by airlines are served exclusively by regionals. Shutting down half or more of the U.S. airline industry when the economy is trying to expand would (will) be disastrous to the economy.

      1. Regionals of United, US Airways, and Delta may operate the majority of flights (American around 45% of operations I think), but no regional carries the majority of any Legacy carrier’s passengers.

        Up-gauging fleets is not shutting down aviation, but it is a shift. This is why Delta acquired Airtran’s 717s to shift capacity away from regional aircraft. Delta now operates MD80s to Mytrle Beach, SC where it used to exclusively send ATR72s and CRJs. Like Delta, the mergers of United, and American will in time facilitate further upgrading. One a320 matches the capacity of a three CRJ200s, but an a321 is only 10-15% more costly to operate. The decline of regionals will shift traffic flows at the cost of frequency, direct service, and flight crew jobs.

        Retire the 50 seats and we may not have a shortage, but furloughed pilots from one regional may not all seek employment at another.

        At least the right sizing of the industry is at the regionals and not the majors, the career movement Cranky spoke of is fast approaching, but I fear for the crews who get stuck in the middle of this period of change.

        Consider this article:

        1. Thanks Rick, painful article but thanks anyway. Delta had 570 50-seaters in 2008, now down to 250 that will be gone in under two years. The move from 50-seaters has been going on for many years, and we still have a pilot shortage today. Retiring 50-seaters doesn’t seem to be enough to relieve the pilot shortage. Soon we will be out of 50-seaters to retire, with mostly much newer 75 and 100-seaters, what then?

          The three majors are hiring 1800 pilots/year and talking about increasing that. SouthWest and cargo carriers are preparing to ramp up hiring as well. The three main regionals have around 9000 pilots, they could be losing huge chunks of that every year as they are the only significant supply of pilots left to the majors.

      1. Very diminishing returns on raising the age to 67. The job is getting tougher, not easier, and older pilots are not all making it to 65. But persistent rumors of this increase are one more reason young people are reluctant to invest in a career that could stagnate another two years with the stroke of a pen. Every year the pilot shortage is put off, instead of fixed, the supply of pilots gets thinner.

        Over the five years after the age was raised to 65, the airlines used the sudden glut of pilots to push pilots for lower pay and conditions, and higher productivity, which meant even fewer pilots needed and more on the street. The result has been an even less desirable career, fewer new pilots. If this problem had been dealt with and fixed instead of put off by raising the retirement age, it would have been a much smaller problem.

        Interesting note: the age 60 retirement age was actually instigated by the American Airlines founder and CEO, to allow him to replace expensive older workers with cheaper younger workers.

        1. Makes reasonable sense.. AFAIK one of the reasons of Social Security and the social contract it has is to encourage older employees to leave the workforce so there are more spaces for younger ones.

          Sadly that is being undone due to financial insecurities.

    1. go ahead and raise it to 67 and you discourage 100’s perhaps thousands of potential pilots from a career in aviation

  19. This author is an idiot. Probably some “company juice drinking” idiot that actually thinks regional airline payscales are fair. The only reason we put up with these payscales for so long was because moving up and upgrading to Capt. or off to a major carrier was well with in the near future. That was never the way to do business. For those of us that have been stuck at the first officer stage of a regional airline for going on a decade, it is out right absurd. If your airline can’t afford to pay a living wage to its pilots, it’s not a legitimate business. It’s no different then these farmers claiming that not allowing them to employ illegal aliens would shut down their business. All illegitimate businesses and they should not be allowed to operate. All airline CEOs make seven-figure salaries. Even if their airline goes into bankruptcy. You would have to be a complete moron if you cannot understand the absurdity of the situation.

  20. I was looking in to the cost of flight school and getting a degree. First there is no college (Embry Riddle) in my area other than the private flight schools that offer Aviation Management with flight training as a Major. That is the only way to get the GI bill to help pay for Flight Training.

    The GI Bill will not pay or supplement the cost for a regular flight school. Those rules just changed last year. If it did I would gladly check a few of them out. To get the full scope of training it costs $60,000 – $70,000.

    I grew up in the airline industry and know many pilots. Many of which got their initial training in the Air Force and Navy. They all said they didn’t get into flying for the money but for the love of flying. The fact that they are all Millionaires now is irrelevant. That came through nearly 30 or so years of service with the airline and flying the big birds on long hauls.

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Cranky Flier