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