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How significant is regional airline pilot shortage?

03/02/2014

There’s a building pilot shortage among regional airlines in the United States. The issue: just how significant is it? The government’s Government Accountability Office concludes in a just-released report there’s “mixed evidence regarding the extent of [the] shortage.”

This much is sure: according to the report, “Pilot schools that GAO interviewed reported fewer students entering their programs resulting from concerns over the high cost of education and low entry-level pay at the regional airlines.”

The report says it can cost more than US$100,000 to get a degree from a four-year aviation program. According to the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association the average staring pay for regional airlines first officers is US$22,400. In contrast, the average pay for an assistant manager at fast-food McDonalds is $28,622 according to Glassdoor.com.

There’s a dramatic disconnect here, one underscored in red when you consider the assistant manager of the fast-food restaurant isn’t responsible for the lives of a cabin full of passengers hurtling through the heavens at 35,000 feet.

How’s this potentially affect you? GAO says, “Some mainline airlines (from those majors often recruit pilots) expressed concerns that entry-level hiring problems could affect their regional airline partners’ ability to provide service to some locations.” In recent years, legacy airlines like American, Delta and United have contracted with regionals to take over an ever-increasing share of the flying, even on some routes formerly the province of large jets.

The good news is those new first officers in the right-hand seat of regional aircraft now have to have at least 1,500 hours as a pilot. It used to be 250. The rule was changed in the wake of the infamous crash of Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Flight 3407 back in 2009. The accident was the result of pilot error. Fifty people died.

GAO indicates regional airlines are responding to the pilot shortage by partnering with aviation schools. Some regionals have even “offered new first officers signing bonuses or tuition reimbursements to recruit new pilots” says the report

It might take precisely that sort of approach to avoid what could be a nasty surprise looming just over the horizon: plenty of regional airline passengers, but not enough pilots to fly them.

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One Comment
  1. I think the issue at the moment, is not a pilot shortage, but rather a shortage of pilots willing to work for so little. A search of certificates shows that those with the minimum experience requirements are in line with how many are needed in the near future.

    Also, there is very little change in the abilities of a pilot with 1000 hours compared to that with 1500 hours. Much of it has more to do with the quality of experience and not quantity. Pilots, specifically First Officers (since this is who this rule really affects), who have no experience operating in foul weather or other difficult flying conditions will all typically perform equally (or equally as poorly given they do not have the proper “tools” or know-how to react correctly). This 1500 hour rule is not necessarily “good news”. It was a (surprisingly) quick reaction by politicians who don’t know what they’re talking about, reacting to their constituents (who also, incidentally, don’t know what they’re talking about).

    Granted, a pilot flying me around with 250 hours is a very scary thought… it’s hard to say where the line needs to be drawn.

    Either way, you’re probably more qualified than me to speak on the matter, but these are my thoughts and the thoughts of many of my peers…

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