In July, an announcement was made by American Airlines (AMR), American Eagle, and their respective pilot groups that could have major ramifications for pilots entering the industry. As a result of a grievance filed (and won) by ALPA, on behalf of the Eagle pilots over the failure of AMR and the Allied Pilots Association (APA, the American pilots’ in-house union), to honor a previous flow-through arrangement, a new agreement was reached regarding career progression for Eagle pilots.
Simply put, it goes like this: every pilot on the Eagle seniority list as of October 11, 2011, will be guaranteed employment at AMR in the future. I do not know all of the particulars of exactly how it will work, but it stands to reason that it will be based on seniority. Once AMR begins to hire, no less than 35 percent of each new class will be Eagle pilots moving up, with the balance coming from the street.
This is a huge deal, for a number of reasons.
First, the long-awaited pilot shortage is here. It will not directly affect the majors for some time, as there are qualified RJ captains galore for them to hire. But regional airlines are already having problems staffing classes, and flights are cancelling for lack of pilots. Needless to say, there will be a huge rush to try and secure an interview with Eagle in the hopes of getting hired by October.
Second, there has long been a caste/class system between the majors and the regionals. The system has been perpetuated by both the management side and the labor side. Neither has been able to bring themselves to see the obvious benefits of having a pilot start off in the right seat of whatever the regional partner flies and then working his way up into the mainline equipment. An RJ pilot at Eagle or ExpressJet is fully versed in the way his respective major airline system works, which streamlines training. The major airline—and its paying customers—also get an experienced, known entity at the front end of the airplane. The class system that has been so long promoted by the airlines and the major-airline unions has led to fractured relationships all the way around that benefit no one, and do far more harm to the piloting profession than union leaders have ever been willing to admit. Unfortunately, regional pilots accept the system so that they can “stay out of trouble,” “pay their dues,” and move up. Maybe.
Third, by taking this step, Eagle management will, for several years, enjoy a steady but predictable rate of attrition with relatively lower labor costs without sacrificing qualified leadership in the captain seats. Once they commence hiring, AMR will benefit by only having to recruit two-thirds as many pilots, which is a substantial cost savings.
The next obvious question is, “What are the time lines for movement?” I don’t know. AMR still has more than 900 pilots on furlough, but they expect to finish recalls early in 2012. Further, AMR has several thousand B-scale pilots hired in the early 1980s who will be leading a mass exodus of retirements. Depending on when they start to hire, it’s possible that a new-hire at Eagle will be at mainline within as few as four years, or as long as eight–but in all honesty, I have no idea what a realistic time frame is.
My guess is that in the future, similar arrangements to this one will be necessary among regionals and majors, simply because the new rest rules (originally scheduled for release Aug. 1, but now delayed), the new experience requirements that will be in place for new FAR 121 FOs, and the low entry pay/high training costs for pilot wanna-be’s will force someone to come up with a new carrot-and-stick approach. Deals like this one, while not perfect, are the closest thing to perfection that we are likely to get, at least for a while. Otherwise, the RJs that provide more than 50 percent of U.S. domestic flights will be canceling ever more flights not because they can’t put passengers in the back, but because there is nobody to sit up front.