Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright