Re­gional Avi­a­tion

Pi­lot Short­age Hits Re­gional Op­er­a­tions


OVER THE NEXT TEN years, the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion (IATA) fore­casts an­nual pas­sen­ger growth rate at 4.2 per cent and a global mar­ket of 4.8 bil­lion air pas­sen­gers by 2027.the global com­mer­cial fleet will fly an ad­di­tional 1.6 bil­lion pas­sen­gers. Along with pas­sen­ger growth, IATA re­ports that the num­ber of unique city-pairs has roughly dou­bled in the past 20 years to over 18,000. If this trend con­tin­ues, the num­ber of city-pairs will ex­ceed 25,000 by 2027, re­quir­ing ad­di­tional air­craft to serve these new routes.

Re­gional air­craft, typ­i­cally with 19 to 130 seats, are used mainly to link smaller mar­kets to hub-and-spoke net­works as well as shorter point-to-point routes. Re­gional pilots typ­i­cally fly 30-minute to two-hour routes. Ac­cord­ing to CAE, the num­ber of pilots re­quired per air­craft is ten for re­gional air­craft, 11 for nar­row-body jets and 16 for wide-body jets.


The most ma­ture re­gional air­line mar­ket is that of North Amer-

ica and that mar­ket is now faced with a loom­ing cri­sis of find­ing pilots for the re­gional car­ri­ers. As most ma­jor US and Canadian air­lines have flow-through agree­ments with feeder air­lines, the re­gional air­line pilots jump to ma­jor air­lines, thus putting pres­sure of pi­lot short­age on re­gional air­lines. Now there are re­ports in the me­dia that the 50-seat jet mar­ket is in a cri­sis due to var­i­ous rea­sons. Re­gional air­lines are now in a dilemma whether to in­vest in a ma­jor over­haul of the air­frame or to sim­ply park the air­craft, the lat­ter seems most prob­a­ble. This prob­lem is com­pounded fur­ther by re­gional air­line pi­lot short­age. To­day 35 states in the US re­ceive at least 50 per cent of their de­par­tures from re­gional equip­ment. So any cat­a­lyst that po­ten­tially re­sults in a smaller re­gional sec­tor is sure to have pro­found ef­fect on air ser­vice from the na­tion’s smaller mar­kets.

The larger re­gional air­lines are not in­su­lated. Ex­pressJet, Repub­lic Air­ways, Amer­i­can Ea­gle are all fac­ing some pi­lot cri­sis or the other. Based on pi­lot re­tire­ments at the four largest US car­ri­ers (Amer­i­can, Delta, South­west and United), 14,000 avi­a­tors will be needed by those air­lines by 2022 just to con­tinue pro­vid­ing the same quan­tum of fly­ing as to­day. Spirit and jetBlue will need to hire pilots as well. And if the re­gional in­dus­try is to be the pri­mary source for pilots to the network car­ri­ers, there are only 18,000 pilots within the sec­tor. If re­plac­ing re­tir­ing main­line pilots is first and fore­most, then the re­gional in­dus­try will be but a frac­tion of it­self by 2022.


Cur­rently within the con­tigu­ous 48 states, 265 air­ports have more than 90 per cent of their fly­ing car­ried out by re­gional car­ri­ers. That is im­por­tant to note be­cause it is the rel­a­tively low wages and limited work rules that pilots work un­der in the re­gional sec­tor that makes be­ing a li­censed com­mer­cial pi­lot unattractive from a fi­nan­cial per­spec­tive. Start­ing salary for a pi­lot em­ployed by a re­gional car­rier will be around $24,000 in the first year. This is hardly a sum to aspire for af­ter in­vest­ing up­wards of $150,000 to com­plete train­ing and hours in a year.

Some re­gional car­ri­ers have trimmed about five per­cent of their flights, cuts that have hit smaller air­ports such as in Red­ding, Cal­i­for­nia or Erie in Penn­syl­va­nia. “It’s be­com­ing a cri­sis for some car­ri­ers, re­sult­ing in the can­cel­la­tion of flights and other se­ri­ous dis­rup­tions,” said Pa­trick Smith, a pi­lot who runs “Ask the Pi­lot,” an avi­a­tion blog.

Repub­lic Air­ways has gone from one prob­lem to an­other, in­clud­ing bank­ruptcy. Last year, it ac­knowl­edged cut­ting four per cent of its flights due to a dearth of pilots. Delta sub­se­quently filed a suit against Repub­lic, al­leg­ing breach of con­tract. “To­day, the re­gional sec­tor ac­counts for half or more of all fly­ing and pilots are real­is­ing that a job with a re­gional air­line of­ten means an en­tire ca­reer with a re­gional,” Smith said.

“At present, the prob­lem of pi­lot sup­ply is en­demic through­out the re­gional air­line in­dus­try,” said a spokesper­son for the Re­gional Air­line As­so­ci­a­tion (RAA) in an emailed state­ment. “While base salaries for new hires have in­creased steadily (the cur­rent un­weighted first year, first of­fi­cer pay av­er­age has in­creased to $27,350) and many air­lines have even of­fered sign­ing and re­ten­tion bonuses to at­tract and re­tain pilots, the num­ber of qual­i­fied ap­pli­cants for jobs at re­gional air­lines re­mains far be­low de­mand.” fly­ing 1,500


Euro­pean air­lines typ­i­cally hire new pilots di­rectly from cadet pro­grammes, with­out re­quir­ing a stint in the ‘re­gion­als’ as in the United States. Europe’s rapidly grow­ing low-cost car­ri­ers (LCCs) sup­port pi­lot cre­ation pro­grammes and have de­vel­oped part­ner­ships with air­line-fo­cused pi­lot train­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions. LCCs in par­tic­u­lar are open to em­ploy­ing cost-ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions to re­cruit the top self-spon­sored grad­u­ates of pro­fes­sional pi­lot pro­grammes.


In a study re­leased at the Paris Air Show, Canadian firm CAE said the world will need 255,000 new air­line pilots by 2027 to off­set both the ef­fect of re­tire­ment and in­dus­try growth. By 2027, CAE ex­pects the global com­mer­cial fleet to grow by 12,000 air­craft to roughly 37,000 air­craft, mean­ing a to­tal of 440,000 ac­tive pilots will be needed. There are cur­rently 290,000 ac­tive pilots.

“Asia-Pa­cific will see the strong­est growth in pi­lot de­mand as the re­gion’s fleet of in-ser­vice air­craft is pro­jected to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease in size. The Amer­i­cas will ex­pe­ri­ence the most pi­lot re­tire­ments.

“Air­lines and their train­ing part­ners will need to pro­duce an av­er­age of 70 new type-rated pilots per day glob­ally to match the record-high air­craft de­liv­ery rate and ac­count for pi­lot at­tri­tion,” the re­port read. Aside from 255,000 new first of­fi­cers, CAE said 180,000 first of­fi­cers will need to be pro­moted to Cap­tain, over half of whom will be to re­place re­tir­ing cap­tains.

The re­port claims that North Amer­ica has a high per­cent­age of older pilots as re­cruit­ment ac­tiv­ity in the 1980s and 1990s tailed off when network car­ri­ers merged and con­sol­i­dated. CAE noted that US re­gional air­lines al­ready face pi­lot sup­ply is­sues af­ter the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA) in­tro­duced stiffer reg­u­la­tions re­quir­ing up to 1,500 to­tal flight hours to be­come a pro­fes- sional air­line pi­lot.

The sit­u­a­tion in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion ap­pears to be even more ex­treme. The CAE re­port claimed around 85,000 air­line pilots are ac­tive in that area; but that fig­ure will need to more than dou­ble as coun­tries such as China and In­dia re­quire much more air­craft to sup­port rapid eco­nomic growth.


Asia-Pa­cific is a vast ge­o­graphic re­gion that in­cludes ma­jor as well as ma­ture economies. Strong eco­nomic growth, an ex­pand­ing mid­dle class, new low-cost car­ri­ers, new routes and in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion, have made Asia-Pa­cific the fastest­grow­ing re­gion for air travel. Once limited to ma­jor Asia-Pa­cific cities, in­ter­na­tional air­line ser­vice is now be­ing ex­tended to sec­ondary and ter­tiary cities with new non­stop routes. Coun­tries with a large and swelling mid­dle class like In­dia and China re­quire air­craft in large num­bers to sup­port their eco­nomic growth. Both coun­tries have the po­ten­tial to be­come even larger avi­a­tion mar­kets with the re­lax­ing of reg­u­la­tions and new in­vest­ments in air­ports and air traffic man­age­ment sys­tems. In ad­di­tion, In­dia’s re­cent im­ple­men­ta­tion of less strin­gent for­eign own­er­ship rules and also the sig­nif­i­cant boost the gov­ern­ment is giv­ing to re­gional avi­a­tion, may help stim­u­late air travel growth.


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