Just How Is the Future of Small Community Air Service Linked to General Aviation?

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13-GT-0023 Regional Manager Map_NW Mountain     During the first week of October, I enjoyed the opportunity to attend the Northwest Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives’ (NWAAAE) annual conference.  This outstanding event brought together over 180 airport managers, public officials, aviation planners and advisors for three days of great discussion about issues facing airports in the Northwest Mountain Region, plus Alaska and Western Canada.  One of the most interesting discussions was a topic near and dear to my heart- the increasing reliance of future small community air service on a vibrant general aviation industry.  This is pretty interesting, and it’s a connection not many on the airport side have made, so stick with me…

     In the seven states in AOPA’s Northwest Mountain region (see graphic above), there are just four major hub airports- Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver.  As such, general aviation airports and small commercial service airports play a significant role in providing transportation access and economic development for our region’s smaller communities.

     At every one of the 66 other commercial service airports in the region, GA plays a significant role, right alongside the airline service that provides these communities with critical and economically important airline connections worldwide.  As you’ve seen at these airports, GA and airline operations coexist in separate worlds, physically and oftentimes existentially.  Of course this is born from the reality that GA and the airlines have vastly different security, operational and infrastructure requirements- usually the only portions of an airport shared by GA and the airlines are the runways and taxiways.  As such, many airport professionals, their tenants and their community think of GA and the airlines separately, and not just in a physical sense.  Well, in today’s new world, this approach may be at their peril.

     At the NWAAAE Conference, one of the most engaging sessions was about the future of small community air service.  One of the primary discussions centered around the FAA’s new “1,500 hour rule”, which in essence, requires most pilots flying in a commercial airliner to now have at least 1,500 hours of flying time before warming a seat in an airline cockpit.  In the past, a newly minted commercially rated multi-engine pilot with just a few hundred hours might land a job as a first officer with a regional airline.

     Well,  no more.

     Now, until most reach that 1,500 hour mark, pilots will have to find other ways to build flight time.  The result for the airlines?  A smaller pool of qualified pilots, which is exacerbating the existing and future airline pilot shortage.  Boeing, which annually forecasts future pilot demand worldwide, recently underscored this widening gap between pilot supply and demand by revising upward their Twenty Year New Pilot Outlook from their 2012 estimate of 460,000 to the current estimate of 498,000.

cancelled_flights1     And what happens when airlines don’t have enough flight crews for their aircraft?  As USA Today recently pointed out, they cancel flights.  And where are many of these flights most likely to be cancelled?  Often at smaller commercial service airports served by regional airlines, which are most dependent on relatively newer pilots, and thus more acutely impacted by the new rule.  In fact, according to the Regional Airline Association, regional airlines fly nearly 50% of all airline flights in the U.S., and provide almost 100% of air service to smaller communities.  In the Northwest Mountain region, 45 of the region’s 70 commercial service airports are served only  by regional airlines, so the potential impact of the new 1,500 hour rule could be quite widespread.  Air service to smaller communities is often financially tenuous for airlines, and when there is a limited pool of aircraft and pilots to fly them, service to these marginal markets will likely be the first to be reduced or even eliminated.

Jgaust how will communities get to keep their economically important and highly coveted commercial air service going forward?  Most certainly by supporting, encouraging and helping to grow a strong and vibrant GA system that will be the source of their airlines’ future flight crews.  With the military no longer a significant source of civilian aviators, most aspiring airline pilots will rely on GA flying to build time- whether it’s flight instruction, banner towing, aerial application or sightseeing flights.

     No longer can communities and airport managers think of GA and airlines separately… even as we continue to park our airplanes in different places on the airport.   So at your airport, be sure your elected officials, your community and your airport manager understand today’s powerful nexus between general aviation and their commercial air service:

     No new general aviation pilots?  No new airline pilots.

     No new airline pilots?  Fewer airline flights.

     Fewer airline flights?  Reduced or eliminated air service to smaller communities with financially marginal regional airline service.

     Reduced or eliminated airline service?  Not a pleasant prospect for smaller communities.

     The solution for these communities?  Work to support GA, so you can support the future of your commercial air service.