As 2015 settles in the rear-view mirror, it’s a good time to look back and see where we’ve been and where we’re going, in this case as a career field. For years, we’ve heard about the impending shortage of pilots facing the airlines. At long last, it’s here, and it’s a sellers’ market.
With help and backing from their major airline partners—the ones actually paying the bills—the regionals have been forced to dramatically increase pay, and nowhere has this been more important than in the slave wages that had been paid to first- and second-year first officers. For several years, regional airline managers tried to work around their collective bargaining agreements by offering some kind of signing/retention bonus, and for a while this worked. In a few cases, it backfired, because the unions argued that it was a violation of their contracts (it was), and forced the company to stop paying the bonuses and address the issue in collective bargaining, which opens up the entire contract. But that didn’t stop the race to pay, and while some of those bonuses reached $10,000, at least one airline is paying up to $80,000 spread out over four years.
In the last 18 months, regional pay has improved dramatically, with first-year pay averaging around $40,000. This is more than double what it was just a few years ago. Better still, with the majors retiring (and hiring) thousands of pilots, first officers are not looking at the decade-long wait to become captains, which means they will jump fairly soon to the $65,000-$70,000 level of pay if they so choose.
Is there a potential downside to all of this? Perhaps. Because of the severity of the cutbacks on regional flying the last several years, combined with the pay, student starts among those looking to fly professional dropped dramatically. It will take time to play catchup, especially with the new rules put into effect for new pilots to become entry level first officers after the Colgan 3407 accident.
Secondarily, the majors are trying to shed as many 50-seaters as they can, because as cheap as fuel is now, it won’t stay that way, and when it climbs, the 50-seater becomes exponentially more expensive to operate. The move now is toward far more 70- to 76-seat airframes.
For regional pilots, the downside is simple: As regional pay (costs) rise, along with the number of passengers affected, it becomes much more expensive to deal with a cancellation that might be attributed to a lack of crews. At some point, it becomes more economical to have the pilots at the main line fly those larger regional jets. American (via USAirways’ E-190), JetBlue, and Delta have already started to migrate to that model, and it may happen across the rest of industry as well. Time will tell.
Two thousand fifteen, however, was a banner year in many respects, as the airlines hired at a record pace, and 2016 promises more of the same (United alone will bring on 1,000 new pilots in 2016, a number that will likely not change much in the ensuing years). Record profits were recorded thanks to better marketing, the effects of consolidation, cheap fuel, and good winter weather (fewer de-icing events). The pilots at Delta and Southwest recently turned down significant pay raises, signifying that they think more is available, and United’s pilots will be voting on a significant raise in January (it includes language to “snap up” if Delta then tops it).
It’s been a long time coming for this sort of optimism in the airlines, especially at the regionals. Movement will occur, and new jobs will be available. If you’ve been on the fence and are at all qualified, this is a great time to give some serious thought to making the leap.—Chip Wright