Regionals Are So Desperate for Captains, Mesa Will Pay Anyone $20,000 to Find One

Labor Relations, Operations

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.

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24 comments on “Regionals Are So Desperate for Captains, Mesa Will Pay Anyone $20,000 to Find One

  1. Very interesting. What kind of retention bonuses has Mesa been offering its FOs who are nearing the magic mark, to try to get the FOs to hang around at Mesa a few extra years as captains?.

    What are the “typical” levels of take-home pay (including per-diems & other add-ons) at different stages of a commercial pilot’s career these days? (That could make for a fascinating post, by the way, unless someone could please direct me to an outside link.) I know that pilot pay scales are mostly public and are posted on various pilot web sites, but as an outsider it’s challenging to get to a reasonable “all-in” number.

    To what extent has the gap between a RJ captain’s pay and a FO mainline pilot’s pay been narrowing in recent years?

  2. Cranky out here taking shots at Houston.

    I might point out that Houston is growing and LA is not…and I’m not even some red hat wearing Cali basher.

    It’s okay Brett we in the Dallas wonder why someone would move to Houston. Then again after the brutal we have had (that won’t end) I wonder why I live here too.

    1. I haven’t been to Houston, so I don’t have an opinion on it.

      When I lived in Dallas 12ish years ago, I met a lot of people who had moved from Houston to the DFW area. Every single one of them expressed a preference for DFW over Houston, often because of the lower humidity in the summer.

      I enjoyed the DFW area (in terms of cities I prefer Fort Worth to Dallas, but that’s a minor point), but really want to spend more time in Texas Hill Country… Spent a long weekend or two out that way years ago and it’s on my short list of places to retire.

      1. I completely agree with you about Dallas versus Houston. I spent a lot of time in Houston as a child and as a teenager visiting my family there and I always wanted to leave as soon as possible. Oh my clothes were wet from sweat by 10 AM. As an adult I moved to Dallas because I was a baggage handler for AMERICAN AIRLINES and I live there for a couple years but , but I moved away from there the first time there’s a big ice storm and 100° for a month in a row. So then I moved to San Jose California still with American and I haven’t left California cents.

        1. Other than some lakes, most activities involving “natural” or “outdoor” activities require a long drive or a flight of an hour or two minimum from the DFW, but no place is perfect, and everyone has their priorities and preferences. (Go to New England or Pac Northwest if you want to visit an ocean, an island, a lake, a big city, and mountains all in the same day.)

          For me personally, I’ve lived in over a dozen states all over the country, and I liked the weather in the DFW area the best. Even just focusing on the summers alone, I’ll take DFW summers over those in Atlanta or the Midwest any day. People always asked about the heat when I lived in Dallas, but temps above 90 aren’t that bad if the humidity is reasonable, and the reality is that the heat index in much of the rest of the country (Midwest, Southeast, etc) is often worse in the summer. At least in Dallas it usually only gets really humid in the summer on the day before and the day after a thunderstorm.

  3. Great piece. We’re in a race to the top and regionals can’t compete for labor.

    The most noteworthy point in the article is: “pilots still leave [regional] way too quickly” But I would ask, are regional pilots departing too swiftly, or not quickly enough?’ It depends on who’s incentives you prioritize.

    Every year spent at Mesa means sacrificing time, income, and seniority potential at a major airline, be it a legacy or cargo carrier. The Aviate program is a career progress hindrance to securing the soonest employment at United Airlines. My advice to Mesa pilots would be to seize the first opportunity to join airlines such as Delta, American, Southwest, JetBlue, etc. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a CommuteAir Captain who still has two years before Aviate transitions him to United. I suggested that he immediately apply to American and Delta to potentially gain 1,200-1,800 seniority numbers sooner this will directly impact long-term career earnings by millions of dollars and also impact how much time he can spend with family. Regional captains simply can’t afford to wait around for an extra two years to slow Mesa’s bleeding. Pilots can’t afford to sacrifice their personal development for shareholder value. Regionals have spent decades outsourcing labor to bolster their profits by resetting pilot longevity, but now the tide is turning.

    The solution lies in merging regional pilots under their mainline carriers into a single pilot contract and seniority list. This would address staffing issues and enhance service to smaller communities, but this might affect Southwest, Allegiant, JetBlue, Spirit, Hawaii, and Alaska.

  4. If the future for regionals isn’t looking good will we be going back to a time before regional jets existed? I recall in my youth (1980’s) flying to many smaller cities on mainline aircraft, notably DC-9’s but some 737/727’s as well. Almost all of those 2nd tier cities are serviced by regionals today. Just fly bigger jets and reduce the frequency. Never been a fan of legacy airlines selling flights on regionals but acting like they’re operating it, and the CRJ’s can go die a horrible death so far as I’m concerned. ERJ’s are slightly better but still sub-par compared to any 737/A220/A320 experience.

    1. > ERJ’s are slightly better but still sub-par compared to any 737/A220/A320 experience.

      I think an E175 is the best experience you’re going to get in economy (no middle seats, generous seat width and pitch, quick boarding and deplaning). I’d choose an E175 vs. a 737 or A320 any day.

      Bigger plans have much better premium offerings, but I’m almost always flying economy anyway.

  5. Here is the problem, Mesa has been and will continue to be the worst regional in terms of pay, QOL, and general treatment. Hell they used to make their crews sleep on planes doing stand up overnight turns all for starting pay of $19 an hour. So no one has any sympathy for those guys. Sure they’re offering a-lot of money but for what? to get worked to the bone everyday and be treated like shit? If you’re eligibile to be a CA then you’re also more then eligible to go to UA or any other major or any LCC out there, there is literally no reason to stay and upgrade at Mesa or any other regional. Seniority is everything and it’;s a race to get your major seniority number. Aviate is also a joke, its a toy to get people to stay at the regionals longer when everyone knows jumping ship to a LCC will get you called way faster.

    1. Right on Bill! I worked for American for 35 years and I was not a pilot, but I knew a lot of them. Nobody seems to have much good to say about any of the regional carriers. So, if you’re not in the military, it seems to be the only steppingstone to working for the majors.

  6. I don’t know about how great Houston is or isn’t. I’ve only been there twice and was too busy to get a feel for the place. But IAH is another matter. I do more walking in that terminal to get where I need to go than I do in any other. The layout is confusing and annoying. I’ll take ORD over IAH always…

  7. Isn’t the market a wonderful thing? Sometimes even corporations take it on the chin.

    Here’s a TL;DR summary for this article: if any regional airline were a great place to work, with great pay and QOL, pilots would stay. It’s not, so they don’t.

  8. The real takeaway from this article is that AA and UA both are still highly wedded to regional carriers including to use small regional jets even as the cost of doing so keeps going up. AS and DL at least don’t have to deal w/ the economics of flying 50 passenger regional jets although no one can fully staff their regional jet fleets right now.
    As much as United esp. talks about its mainline fleet growth in order to replace RJs, they are still trying to maintain hundreds of RJs including their 50 passenger CRJ 550s which I believe they have told employees would operate until the end of the decade. There is a good chance that DL will still be flying most of its 717s, acquired for a song from WN/Boeing to get rid of CRJ 200s, over 15 years before the end of this decade.
    As long as mainline airlines continue to see value in regional jets and keep paying the price to keep them staffed, the regional jet industry will continue to exist.

    1. Until United gets its new aircraft delivered, it really doesn’t have much choice if it wants to maintain its current capacity levels. I somewhat agree with your observation when it comes to American, but it has logistical and contractual issues such as training and redeploying aircraft among its subsidiaries and contractors. It’s easy to second guess given 20/20 hindsight.

      I guess Delta is still the world’s only perfect airline.

      To close my comment, I offer you these words from Teddy Roosevelt:

      “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

      1. United has said internally that it will hold onto large portions of both its regional jet and older mainline fleets well into the latter half of this decade, years after it says it will receive more aircraft than any other airline.
        Either United is being driven solely by market share aspirations rather than to replace and modernize its fleet – including its RJ fleet – or it isn’t telling the truth about its fleet plans.

        There is nothing perfect about Delta’s ability to recognize more than a decade ago that the RJ era will come to an end and it makes sense to start the process of replacing those aircraft with mainline aircraft, something no other airline has done. While other airlines have jumped on the A220 bandwagon, it has been for the larger model which is largely competitive with the A319 and the B737-700/7

        The RJ era will come to an end unless airlines are content to order E175s until the last minute that Embraer can sell them and only replace older planes going out the door.

        Pilots can see that in addition to the higher pay at the biggest carriers. No one wants to spend any more time than necessary at a company that accomplishes nothing more than get you to the next step. Pilots build careers. Regional carriers can’t provide that in light of the dying future of the airline industry.

        A very regional airlines will be there until the final RJ flight and it won’t include Mesa.

  9. There’s a ratio of major to regional pilots above which it’ll be very difficult for regionals to continue, if only because they will on average be hired out before acquiring the experience necessary to run the regional. Any airline, after all, requires a deep stable of experienced training captains to help all those new hires and new upgrades. I think we’re turning over the entire regional staff once every three years or so, which just won’t do. There’s not enough experience left to run an airline, let alone run it with effective mentorship for the young pilots. Something has to give, because as regionals fail to staff they will shrink, that ratio will get worse, and the turnover will get faster.

    1. Just to expand a little…. It is not possible for a regional to turn over 1/3 of its staff annually and survive. There just aren’t enough hours flyable by pilots to upgrade, and then serve in the left seat long enough for their successors to build their time in the right. That’s why they’re desperate to find pilots who qualify for DEC so they can add Captain hours without also adding FO hours.

      The majors are collectively 5 times the size of regionals, and if they hire 6% of their staff annually from those regionals, they’d then take 30% of the regionals’ staff. We saw that (and more) in 2022 especially, and the inevitable outcome was a sharp reduction in availability of Captains at regionals and subsequent reduction in flying.

      As the regionals shrink and the majors grow this will get worse. Age 67, should it happen, might briefly punt the consequences down the road, just as age 65 did. Ultimately I expect the majors to have to in-source everything to a single seniority list, and I wonder if an 86 seat E175-E2 would be enough to offset the labor costs of major crews flying them.

  10. What is an expected utilization for an airplane at a regional like Mesa?
    I gather from context that 6.5 and 4.5 is bad, but what were they at in say.. 2009?

    1. Nick – This is a hard one, because the number of airplanes in the fleet is never static. But let’s look at 2019. At the end of the fiscal year (Sep 30, 2019), Mesa has 62 airplanes flying for American and 80 for United. In Sep of that year, Mesa’s average utilization using those numbers was just shy of 9 hours for American and 9.5 hours for United, that’s per airplane per day.

  11. One thing I forgot to mention was I did an analysis of regional airline seniority lists. It shows quite clearly that 1/3 of regional airline pilot were hired in the last year, another 1/3 in the last 2-3 years. The distribution of experience is baked into the top seniority of the list and regionals will collapse when those pilots age out.

    There was a time where 50 year old regional captains making $250-300k would stay at regionals, but now that mainline pay rates are going up 47% the math has changed.

    I believe Check pilots and flight instructors will increasingly checkout if regionals. Age 67 will be destroyed by 47% pay raises.

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