We all know that regional airlines have struggled to attract enough pilots to keep their operations running over the last couple years. Many have failed to fulfill their obligations and have parked airplanes outright. They’ve jacked up pay, added huge signing bonuses, and done really anything they could to get those airplanes back in the air. The problem, however, is more nuanced than that. I spoke with Mesa’s Andrew Lotter, VP of Flight Operations, to try to understand exactly what is happening and why the airline felt compelled to offer a $20,000 bonus to anyone, and I mean anyone, who refers a captain to the airline.
Here’s something that might surprise you. There is no shortage of first officers in the regional industry. Andrew and others have said that their classes are full. This wasn’t always the case, but every year pay goes up, more and more people enter flight schools and plan to become commercial airline pilots. This is a far cry from the old days when you had to really want it in order to justify living at poverty wages for so long. (Quality of pilots may drop because of this, but that’s a different issue.)
The problem is what happens after those pilots get to the regionals. Once pilots have achieved their 1,500 hours (or reduced amount through certain pathways), they are eligible to be hired to fly in the right seat at a regional. But they then need to have another 1,000 hours in that right seat before they can upgrade to captain and sit in the left seat.
Those 1,000 hours can be gained by flying at any scheduled airline, apparently including scheduled commuters like Cape Air. Andrew did tell me that on-demand charter operator time at places like JSX will not count toward that number, which I hadn’t realized.
So, when fresh-faced first officers arrive at Mesa, they are just trying to get those 1,000 hours so they can move on to the left seat, but the ultimate goal for most of these pilots is to move over to the mainline operation where they can get paid even more and have better schedules. That’s why Mesa is one of the participants in United’s Aviate program which feeds pilots into United.
This in theory should make it more attractive for pilots to choose Mesa since it gives them a direct path to the big boys, but nearly all regionals have this arrangement with one carrier or another now. So it becomes a question of where you’re based and which mainline airline you want to fly for. If for some unknown reason you love Houston… and United, then Mesa may be the place for you.
The thing is, when mainline airlines can just take pilots as needed, it makes it a whole lot harder for the regional to function. Previously, United could take pilots anytime it wanted, and it would take first officers but it had to stop that practice. Now, United only takes pilots through the Aviate program when they become captains.
This may keep pilots in place at Mesa for longer, but it created another problem. It encourages some candidates to go elsewhere before making the leap. Imagine a first officer who starts with Mesa. Then that person gets an offer to go to an ultra low-cost carrier. United may not be able to raid the first officers at Mesa any longer, but it can certainly do it at other unaffiliated carriers. Some pilots may choose to go outside Aviate, because they can get to United faster than in the program.
Part of the problem is that with so few captains, the first officers sit around not building time as quickly as they could otherwise. The end result is that pilots still leave Mesa — and all regionals, Mesa isn’t unique — way too quickly.
How acute is this problem? Well, excluding the four 737s the airline operates for DHL in cargo service, Mesa is trying to be an 80-airplane airline flying exclusively for United Express. It has 80 Embraer 175s, but about a third of those are parked right now. When American and Mesa broke up, Mesa took 30 of the CRJ-900s it was flying for American and pushed them into service for United. It was able to take all those CRJ-trained pilots to pick up the slack right away. Mesa is not hiring for CRJ pilots any longer. It will just slowly transition people as training events come up and eventually be an 80-airplane airline with only Embraer 175s.
Even with this influx of pilots from the American contract, Mesa still isn’t fully utilizing those 80 airplanes. According to Cirium data, August averaged just under 6.5 hours per day assuming an active 80-airplane fleet. September is scheduled at around 6.9 hours per day. It was as low as around 4.5 hours per day until the American pilots were moved over, so you can see how dire the situation has been.
So, Mesa has an expensive fleet that it wants to keep at 80, at least for now. But the one thing preventing it from doing that is having enough captains. It already has insane signing bonuses of $110,000, but now it will pay anybody who refers a direct-entry captain — meaning someone who has the hours to slide right into the left seat — $20,000. That’s $10,000 after training is completed and another $10,000 after 6 months of flying the line. That means if you know a pilot who is a qualified captain, you should go get yourself paid. This offer is apparently only good through September 15 for now, so you better get working fast if you want that referral money.
This level of desperation may work at getting pilots into airplanes, but at what cost? I mean, it’s a stupid question. We know at what cost. It’s a LOT of money. That’s going to make it yet again harder to make regional flying profitable. But that is a problem for the mainline airlines to solve. It’s also a good topic for another post, because the future for regionals is murky at best.