New regional first officer pay agreement

Every month it seems that more evidence comes out about how extreme the pilot shortage is getting. I got an email tonight that was as clear as could be that it’s getting worse. ExpressJet Airlines, which at one time was the regional feed for Continental and is now owned by SkyWest Airlines, has been struggling for awhile to find enough qualified pilots to staff its airplanes. The union leadership at ExpressJet and ASA (also owned by SkyWest) has agreed to allow the company to hire pilots with previous FAR 121 experience and pay them based previous years of service.

That means that a former Comair pilot with 15 years of experience can get hired and get paid at year-10 pay. The news release doesn’t get very specific, but since ExpressJet only has an eight-year scale for first officers, it could mean that the 10-year pay includes captain time.

If so, that would mean that a new hire with the appropriate experience will get paid $81 per hour versus $37 per hour—a difference of $44. Further, the benefit of previous experience is also being extended to the 401(k) plan and vacation. The new pilots will still be at the bottom of the seniority list, so they’ll be on reserve, they’ll be junior FOs, and they won’t be hired as “street captains.”

Still, this is a huge step. It’s an admission that current recruiting efforts for pilots are not bearing any fruit. To take that a step further, it’s of even greater significance that the union agreed to this, because this practice goes against almost 100 years of industry norm.

It has the potential to ruffle some feathers among the pilots on property, but—in theory—it shouldn’t, since those hired previously are still getting paid based on total experience. If I read the press release correctly, pilots who were previously hired and would have met the requirements to get paid more will also get a pay bump. The only catch to this new rule is that the new-hire pilot is required to have left his or her previous carrier on good terms. In other words, it’s OK to have been furloughed or to have resigned, but if you were fired, you’re out of luck.

There’s virtually no chance of this sort of deal coming to fruition at the majors, since the number of pilots applying for those jobs far exceeds the number of jobs available. It also helps that the pay at the majors is also substantially greater than the pay at the regionals.

Still, this is a deal that can’t be made without at least some blessing of management at the majors, since they’re the ones that pay the regionals, and this is going to drive up the block hour cost of regional flying. For regional pilots who have checked out of the industry for awhile, this just might be the enticement they need to come back. We’ll see how the details pan out, but this could be a golden opportunity for many.—Chip Wright


  1. Marco Esquandoras

    September 13, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    I’m glad to see that you noted that the problem with “pilot shortage” is at the regional airlines level. The majors don’t have a pilot shortage problem…and they won’t for a long while because they will bleed the regional airlines dry first. The regional airlines are having issues because of the junk that’s coming out of flight training facilities. The pilots are just not as knowledgeable or skilled as the past generations. I suspect this has a lot to do with pushing buttons and staring at magenta lines and screens instead of stick and rudder. The interesting story to sought after is what the failure rate at the regional airlines are, and how much accommodation is happening for these new hires (more failure allowances, more sim sessions, etc.) vs. historical norms. I suspect it’s night and day.

    • In reality the pilot shortage is an issue at the Major level. 70 percent of a legacies lift is produced by their regional partners. What do you think happens when that lift can no longer be sustained? This is a major source of revenue for the legacies. Additionally, to cover retirement attrition over the next decade, the entire pool of regional pilots will have to be absorbed. Who will replace them?

  2. Paying new hires more than existing workers, is a problem that goes back to the early industrial age and beginnings of industrial unions. Workers should be attracted to a good paying career with an employer, not a bribe. Paying new hires more than existing workers highlights the reality that pilots are not paid enough to attract workers to the profession, and explains why so few young people are now in training to become professional pilots.

    Airline workers are uniquely locked in to their employers by seniority systems. This was done originally to mirror the military system, which was the closest model for operating an airline. Unfortunately, that eliminates competitive forces to keep wages up. The longer a worker stays with an airline, the less that airline really needs to pay them to stay, and this is what his happening. The workers are loyal and committed to their airlines, and in return the airlines are paying them as little as possible to keep them, not valuing their experience or loyalty.

    In China, the highest paid pilots are in business aviation, where they move easily to the best compensation and must be paid well. The next lowest are regionals, and the lowest paid are at major airlines, where they must pay huge compensation to the airline if they are given permission to quit. We are not far from that in the U.S.. Aging pilots at major airlines in the U.S. have virtually no retirement benefits, and are looking at hefty medical insurance premiums in retirement, they are stuck flying to max retirement age. Most of them will never see the top wide-body captain pay the media likes to bring up. Paying new hires extra, keeps pay for all the other pilots from rising.

    • “Airline workers are uniquely locked in to their employers by seniority systems.”

      No, they are not. They are locked in to seniority systems by their unions. Nor is the military like that. You COMPETE for promotions in the military and at higher levels it is very much an up-or out system.

      You don’t know what you are talking about.

  3. On what basis are you assuming that they will be eligible for Captain pay? It’s far more likely that they incomers will be capped at the the top First Officer rates, just like all the other First Officers stuck at that pay rate. In which case, they will only be making $3,375/mo with all that experience that they bring to the table. Additionally upgrade time runs very long (the last Captain upgrade on the ERJ side was a 2011 hire). An applicant would be much better off going to an airline that offers $36/hr starting pay where they would be eligible to upgrade within a year in order to make captain pay. Really all the announcement boils down to is smoke and mirrors in an attempt to lure people in.

  4. If you live anywhere near Michigan and are thinking of heading down the path for an aviation career, take a look at this article on a Scholarship program created by a Michigan Flying Club

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