Ghosts, GA and Other Oddities Affected by an Airline Pilot Shortage

May 27th, 2014 by Amy Laboda

Last week I was privileged to attend an aviation conference I’d never been to before: the Regional Airline Association (RAA) Convention, held in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where I learned that I am a ghost pilot. My ghostly status, and what I plan to do about it, has direct bearing on several phenomena currently effecting smaller airports around the U.S. and the general aviation pilots flying from them. Read on. You may discover you are a ghost, too!

The strange revelation was unveiled during an open discussion between Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways Holdings, one of the largest regional conglomerates in the U.S.;

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages during the 2014 RAA Convention

Andrew Von Ah, of the Government Accountability Office; and Dan Akins, a transportation economist with more than 20 years of industry experience.

Let me add some context to the conversation to help set the scene. Eleven of 12 regional airlines can’t find qualified pilots. New rules require airline pilots to have an ATP before they can carry passengers. An ATP requires 1,500 hours total time and special training (there are few exceptions). That has raised the cost and the duration of training for would-be regional pilots by as much as $100,000 over what it used to cost to go through a four-year university program, flight instruct, acquire about 500 hours experience, and finally qualify for an interview at a regional.

Data from the University of North Dakota show that airline track students are dropping out at the rate of 50% by senior year. Interviews by Dr. Kent Lovelace are telling: these kids have done the math and realize that they won’t be on earnings par with their peers (graduating as nurses, software engineers, accountants) for years. And how, exactly, does one service upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt when only bringing home $25,000 each year? Cape Air starting pay, for example, is a cool $15 per duty hour. I made $15 per hour as a flight instructor and charter pilot in 1986.

To cap the immediacy of the problem for the regionals the feds have issued new pilot duty and rest rules that have forced airlines to pad their pilot ranks by about five percent. Bedford can’t find qualified pilots to make that happen, and has, to date, parked 27 airplanes, he stated.

Von Ah cited the recently released study by the GAO that said there was no airline pilot shortage developing (much contested study, I might add). He acknowledged that regionals might be challenged filling pilot slots, but pointed to government calculations that used FAA pilot statistics to determine that there were adequate “pools” of U.S. commercial and airline transport (ATP) rated pilots ready to be tapped by regional airlines for hiring. He suggested these pilots weren’t adequately incentivized.

Bedford scoffed, positing back, “Last year we looked at 2000 and offered jobs to 450 pilots. This year we vetted 1000 and only got 90 we could offer jobs to. It is a quickly diminishing pool.” He went on to point out that he was trying to negotiate a new contract with his airlines’ pilots; one that includes pay raises.

That’s where Akins chimed in, “The idea that we will have a big rush of ghost pilots wanting to be hired by regional carriers? These pilots are doctors and congressmen. They are not getting in line for those jobs!” he sighed, exasperated.

So true! I’m an ATP-rated pilot with thousands of hours in my logbook, including the requisite turbine experience and I’m not the least bit interested in flying right seat for Silver Airways, our new United feeder. My days of flying for $15 per hour are long past.

The discussion, however, was a fascinating window into why airlines have been pulling out of our area this past year, leaving routes under 500 miles for general aviation, including Part 135 charter, to cover. The phenomenon even caused some local companies to ramp up their Part 91 flight departments again. Now I understood the issues that caused American Eagle and Cape Air to bail on my town, and quite a few others.

And my local flight schools? The ones that can handle foreign students are thriving. But they aren’t teaching a lot of younger locals, the guys who used to work their way up to airline flying by flight instructing and flying charters or night freight. The new ATP rule has been like a shot to the ribs for those guys, and they are rethinking career aspirations, just at the moment when airlines are about to need them the most. How ironic.

At the crux of the problem is who will pay for this new, expensive training. It is clear that the young pilots aren’t interested in carrying the student loan debt forward into the first or second decade of their working lives. Who would be?

The idea of paying pilots more for the experience was broached once more, but ultimately the panel concluded that adversity and much lobbying will force Congress to pressure FAA to create more exceptions to the new ATP rules.  I’m skeptical—how about you?

Amy Laboda

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Sherman Kensinga

    At the big flight schools 90% of students are foreign students, destined for foreign airlines. Some U.S. flight schools that closed have been purchased and reopened by foreign airlines for their pilots. PanAm is now Chinese owned. Of the few American students in pilot training, almost half are over 40-yrs-old, instructors refer to them as “bucket list” students. Our civilian pilot training pipeline is almost entirely foreign students, and our military pipeline that was the primary source of airline pilots, is no longer supplying pilots. The military now has a ten-year commitment, after training, so basically a twelve-year commitment. Half of them are drone pilots, and the others are getting few hours in their twelve-year commitment. And their pay and retirement programs are better than the airlines can offer them.

    Flight Simulator games were once popular with young Americans, but now there is little interest in flying. Young people will have to see a desirable career to pursue, and they don’t. Airline pilots are posting about their lives and careers in blogs and forums, and they are not happy. It has taken years for the drop in interest and the drop in young Americans entering flight training, to get us to today’s drop in young Americans becoming newly qualified commercial pilots.

    This is unfortunate, as we are about to enter a large bubble of commercial pilot retirements. Notice I didn’t say “airline pilot retirements”, airline pilots are about a quarter of the commercial pilots employed in the U.S. Business aviation stopped hiring new pilots about the same time the airlines did, and their pilots are now getting older as well. Business aviation has been putting off hiring for many years, they need more pilots now, and if the economy picks up they intend to increase pilot staffing as their pilots reach retirement age. If regional airline continue to pull out of small markets, that will also spur business aviation.

    It is too late to fix this, too late to raise pay enough to attract pilots to the eight-year training pipeline. The regional and low-cost airlines are lobbying hard for lower safety standards, as their existence is now threatened. This is great for the major airlines, they will be much better off without the low-cost competition, but eventually they will join in calls for lower safety standards to “save the airline industry”. From itself.

    The airline industry squeezed labor so hard, young people stopped entering the pilot profession. There is no supply-and-demand control of pilot supply, it has to be managed, and the airlines failed to manage it. Congress took away the right of airline unions to strike, but failed to manage the balance of power when airlines abused their power. We are now faced with such a huge shortage of pilots, it will harm the nation’s economy if we don’t compensate by lowering safety standards. What a mess. And what a windfall for the major airlines.

  • Daniel George

    Ah, the old “I will fly for food” mentality is soon to be a thing of the past. Pilots have been their own worst enemies and need to now hold the line when it comes to compensation. When you love to fly and will do it for basically nothing, companies will pay you basically nothing. Eventually the market will correct and the rewards of flying for a living ( the definition of a professional ) can only level out at what it will take to train and meet the requirements of an ATP. And given the fact that there are no more military pipe lines that will feed the majors, the flow through for the big iron has to go through the regionals. So put the bit in your mouth and the blinders on and collectively pull for more money. It’s time we made what we are worth, or let the general public take a bus, a train, or drive to their destination. Just saying.

    • flyhigh33

      You’re quite right Aaron. If a person/pilot is 23 years old and has no immediate need for big cash (courtesy of a Mommy and Daddy who want their little progeny to be an “Airline Pilot”), then this system is just fine as it stands. Of course I generalize to emphasize the point – but I recall when I was first getting into the industry in 1991 (second career), it was a tough industry and very hard for a pilot to break in. There was no shortage. I was struck by an ad I saw in General Aviation News from an aspiring pilot fresh out of his college of choice with his CFI and 350 hours total time. The ad stated that, if hired, he would fly FOR FREE for the first 3 months! Nice to have that option, but then most of us didn’t and don’t have Mom and Dad’s bankroll to live on. We had to earn something.

      So like you say… every time I hear from some young, bright-eyed, gushing, eager type talking about “I always dreamed of being a pilot”… I have to excuse myself and go throw rocks at a wall somewhere. Best of luck to them and their food stamp/homeless person lifestyle.

    • flyhigh33

      Sorry. Wrong person. You’re quite right “Daniel”.

  • cracklow

    I’m in my thirties and never had any illusions of being a professional pilot because the pay to cost of education/qualifying ratio has been out of whack for so long.

    Seems to me we’ll have plenty of pilots in the coming years, they merely won’t be American born.

  • John

    Thank you Amy Laboda for your thoughts, I have long enjoyed your articles. I watched on YouTube at least part of the RAA convention meeting you attended. My feelings ranged from incredulous to enraged listening to the smug way in which pilots’ lives and talents were degraded by Bryan Bedford and at times by Mr. Atkins. What a one-sided, pro management discussion. What I saw included NO input from actual regional pilots-NONE- and there certainly was not a pilot representative on the panel.

    Also, I know people who have interviewed with Republic, were turned down, and are now flying for other regionals-darn good guys! Why Republic turned them down, I dont know exactly, but I suspect it is because they refused to pay the $1,500 for a 1 day regional airline prep course! (This course has ties with Republic, surprise, surprise.) *Major* airline interview prep doesn’t cost that much. Don’t believe me? This is a *predatory* not preparatory program, designed to essentially force people into an overpriced interview prep program. One more example of what is wrong with the industry and what Bedford is peddling.

    I get the impression that The RAA believes if they let things go and become a big enough boon doggle, the government will have to bend, and in a big way. This is a crime, because of all the lead time and warnings the industry has had in order to prepare a new generation of pilots. Then the industry got a five year reprieve on top of that! (age 60 to 65 rule) Now while the the regionals are crying “pilot shortage” and “too much government!”, it is regional pilots who have been told to take *paycuts*! Again, don’t believe me? Google Endeavor Air, Envoy, Expressjet, and PSA. Republic’s contract offer was no gem either, and of course the pilots voted it down. Roger Cohen has moaned that, “It doesn’t matter if you triple the starting salary tomorrow, that’s still not going to create one more person that’s got 1,500 hours tomorrow.” Management is looking for quick fixes to long term problems. Why wasn’t pay raised ten years ago, Mr. Cohen?!

    Additional points;
    This new law is really the 1,000/1,250 hour rule not 1500 hour rule, because so many new pilots will come from exempted two and four year degree programs.

    Regionals used to require a minimum of 1,000 hours and 100 or more multi when pilots were plentiful. At what point did experience not matter? Mysteriously about the time pilots stopped showing up in droves. Mr. Bedford tries to downplay the value of flight experience with his musings about advances in technology basically being an omnipresent and infallible security blanket.

    The payscale of a 76 seat “regional” jet FO tops out at about 40,000 a year. A 110 seat mainline jet FO will top out around 130/140,000 a year. This two tiered system needs to end. Kids have plenty of access to the internet, and they are looking this stuff up. Earth to management, wake up!!!

  • Aaron

    This is an opinion blog that silences opinions

  • Aaron

    How’s this one? I agree. Pilots should get paid more.

  • Aaron

    At the risk of of being labeled a heretic, perhaps it is time for pilots of major and regional airlines to become employees of the federal government to be trained, subsidized by the American taxpayer, and then leased out on a per unit basis . There is no denying the heavy involvement and interwoven relationship that exists between the federal government, aircraft manufactures, air carriers and the service they provide to the American citizen. I most certainly hope it doesn’t come to this, but I’m tired of the story of the airline pilot shortage, and quite frankly don’t believe it’s true. If there was a shortage salaries would be much higher. I don’t hear of FedEx, UPS, other freight carriers suffering from a pilot shortage. Why is that?

  • Sean Berry

    I’ve got about 270 hours, no turbine or multi time yet, but will happily pick some of each up once I’ve got commercial and instrument (just picked up ASES).

    I’d love to fly for an airline, and while I’m not a doctor or a congressperson, I’m also not 19 years old, so $15/hr ($14,500-19,000/yr) isn’t terribly attractive. I’ve discussed this with my family a number of times, I’d love to fly full time, and I’d happily make some sacrifices to do it, but it’s a hard job that pays very poorly (at least initially).

    I was intrigued by the model it looked like British Airways was doing a few years ago: they’d basically pay for your flight training (70,000 GBP, say $125,000 USD?), and you’d sign up to work for them for 7 years. Seems like a better model, has worked for the US military officer corps for decades (pay for college vs. 4 years of service).

    The idea of going all the way to ATP on weekend CFI work is a fine plan, but not one that lends itself to acceleration or rapid shifts in demand. Seems like you could accept pilots at the same level the partner airlines used to hire (250-500-1000 hrs, CFI/CFII + some multi or turbine time) and invest in getting them through an accelerated course to get them the rest of the way.

  • Aviation Attitudes

    I wonder what the media’s role is in this as well. The only news you get about Aviation is the 24 hours of coverage on a plane crash… If we are honest that can’t be helping folks who would be interested in this type of career either. If we look at the hero days of WWII, or the moon generation of NASA in the 60’s & 70’s this industry was looked upon very favorably. Probably not so much now.

  • David Trupe

    look at great lakes, they are devastated, converting most of the 1900’s to 9 seaters, to operate a 135 with them, its going to be interesting in the next 2 years

  • Tony Merrc

    As long as the executives are getting paid more than $40,000/yr, they have have no incentive to raise pilot salaries. The executives may have a golden parachute…..and that is not good for pilots in my opinion. If the executive salaries/bonuses could be pooled/shared by the pilots, then maybe that would allow more incentive.

  • rogers55

    When I worked for United back in the 1960s they had a program for employees who wanted to become pilots. If you otherwise qualified they would pay for your flight training and then hire you as a Second Officer. Back then you only needed 300 hours and a commercial certificate.

  • Thomas Cox

    I wonder if another issue could be the overly generous compensation packages for airline executives and their supporting overhead? Perhaps its time that Airlines reduce these perks, reduce their overhead ranks in favor of putting that capital toward hiring? Essentially, smaller staffs that work harder to expand and stay competitive while offering services to some of the regionals. Or, perhaps the wave of the future lies in more regional airlines that pick up where the majors leave off, relegating majors to domestic and overseas long-haul missions.

    I can almost guarantee that if the airlines won’t compensate military pilots, the military will. Military personnel in the main flying ranks (2Lt-Major / Ens-LCdr), depending on where they are stationed, make between $60K upwards of $120K when looking at total compensation packages (Base+BAH+COLA+Incentives+Haz Pay). No one is getting out right now with the reductions in force.

    As for the GAO study, I’m skeptical of all government studies nowadays…when I read them, I’m looking for the angle…regardless of whether or not the author seems impartial.

  • Richard Speer

    Pilots have done the same thing to themselves as my profession(architects) has done to theirs…they don’t stick to their guns (only accept/do work for reasonable fees)…they want to (fly or design) more than they want to keep their profession a profession rather than the ‘commodity’ it has become….AND who controls the price of commodities? Monied interests of course…in this case the major airlines.
    Pilots(architects and other professions too) are their own problem. If they WILL work for $15 an hour that’s ALL they deserve. NO NEGOTIATION is truly a negotiation unless either party is willing to walk away. Airlines don’t care (there is always another fool out there that will work for less) and the few pilots that won’t accept their pittance-wages have already walked away. Too bad unions have disappeared in the US and that to get a living wage pilots have to go overseas.
    Airlines here appear to be working toward an ultimate goal of $0 per hour-drone technology-to replace human control…coming soon to a theater near you!!!! Like the kid that invests $100,000 in a Master of Arts in basketweaving…training to be an airline pilot will no longer guarantee a decent ROI.

  • John

    Proof that the trucking industry is far smarter and more progressive than the airline industry, and why I will NOT allow my children to follow my footsteps into professional aviation. Keep in mind that within the past three years these regionals were forced to take *concessions* or be shut down in the face of an admitted pilot shortage; Endeavor Air, Envoy, PSA, Expressjet. All of which are now being used to whip saw the other regionals to be even cheaper. Brilliant. But airline managment keeps telling America the ATP law is the problem, not their own lack of foresight and basic intellect.
    Something’s got to give

    At the end of July, Swift Transportation, the largest truckload carrier in North America, complained of a truck driver shortage in its Q2 earnings release. “We were constrained in the truckload and (central refrigerated systems) segments by the challenging driver market. Our driver turnover and unseated truck count were higher than anticipated,” according to the press release.

    The company says it will now invest in drivers and that it will spend more on wages. Salaries, wages, and benefits rose $14.2 million to $238.1 million in Q2, compared with $223.9 million a year ago. This was “due primarily to increases in workers compensation expense, the number of non-driving employees, and an increase in driver wages per mile due primarily to a change in driver mix across our various segments.”

    Swift says it will pay higher wages and better training to attract more truck drivers.

    Con-way’s Jackson shared similar sentiments, saying driver retention would now be key. “Overall, the industry needs to adjust compensation levels to match the jobs at hand.” She also thinks trucking companies need to reach out to younger generations and show them that driving a truck is “a legitimate career option.”

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