If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.
In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.
This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.
For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.
It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.
I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.
It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.
This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.
I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright