As Major Airlines Scoop Up Pilots, Regional Carriers See A Shortage

Sep 6, 2017

After officials blamed a deadly 2009 commuter plane crash in upstate New York on pilot error and inexperience, Congress responded by mandating more training for commercial pilots.

While some believe the new rules were needed, others say they've gone too far and have worsened a growing pilot shortage, especially among regional carriers.

Cape Air is the regional airline that serves Rutland, Lebanon, New Hampshire, Provincetown, Massachusetts and Martha’s Vineyard, to name just a few of their destinations.

Personally, I’ve always loved their small nine- seat planes, because unlike larger passenger aircraft, many Cape Air flights are single pilot operations.

So I was often able to sit in the co-pilot seat, with an unbelievable view from the cockpit.

But those seats are rarely available to passengers now, filled instead with first officers-in-training.

“We’re constantly training,” says Cape Air captain Jonathan Coste. “[Traditionally] we would not train from June ‘til October because those are our summer months and we’re busy and all the pilots would go fly. [But] we now train all year round,” he explained after a recent flight from Boston to Lebanon.

Cape Air staff in Boston announce departures to Lebanon, New Hampshire and Provincetown, Massachusetts on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Airline officials say they've had to cancel some other established routes because of the shortage of pilots.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Coste, who's worked at Cape Air for twenty years, says they've ramped up training to keep ahead of a pilot shortage that he says is hitting small airlines hard.

“We would have a much better time with about 60 more pilots," he says nodding.

Experts point to a number of reasons for the shortage including increased demand for flights globally, especially in Asia.

Large numbers of veteran pilots at major airlines are also hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65.

"I have never seen the industry the way it is right now with the regional airlines so in need of pilots." - Elizabeth Bjerke, Chair of The University of North Dakota's Aviation Department

It’s a retirement bubble that’s hitting just as the pipeline of new pilots has slowed down says Elizabeth Bjerke, Associate Dean of Aviation at the University of North Dakota.

“I have never seen the industry the way it is right now with the regional airlines so in need of pilots,” she says.

The University of North Dakota has one of the largest undergraduate aerospace programs in the country and she says demand for their students has grown exponentially. “All it takes is coming to our career fairs to see that they’re trying to talk to students as soon as they get into the program before they even have their private pilot certification to get them interested in their company. They need pilots that bad."

Bjerke says before 2010, commercial pilots needed a minimum of 250 hours of flight experience to be hired as a first officer - about what you’d get after graduating with a four-year aviation degree.

But in 2010, Congress increased that to 1,500 hours, phased in over three years, with some exceptions for pilots with military or other accredited training.  

Pilots say it can take years to log that many flight hours and it's pricey if you don’t own your own plane.

Larger airlines have been able to hire pilots from smaller carriers, but that’s put the squeeze on regional airlines.  

Cape Air is unique among them. Because of the small size of its planes, its first officers do not have to comply with the new airline transport pilot certificate mandates. Cape Air captains have to be fully certified under the 1,500 hour rule, but accredited pilots with fewer hours can be in a Cape Air cockpit if they’re supervised by a captain.

So while Cape Air has been able to train a steady stream of new pilots, turnover among their captains is high.

Andrew Bonney, Senior Vice President of Planning at Cape Air, says that’s had a big impact on service.

“Unfortunately we had to suspend service to a number of communities that Cape Air used to fly to that were profitable, viable communities, where Cape Air was providing terrific service: including: Nevis, Anguilla, Block Island and Providence, Rhode Island.”

Bonney says there are also many new routes they’d like to develop, but can’t because they don’t have enough pilots.

"One of the problems with the 1,500 hour rule is there’s no quality control on the type of hours. Simply flying around in circles over the Green Mountains counts as hours." - Andrew Bonney, Cape Air

And while he says Congress may have had good intensions for ramping up training requirements, he believes the focus should be on quality of training not quantity.

“Because one of the problems with the 1,500 hour rule today is there’s no quality control on the type of hours," says Bonney. "So simply flying around in circles over the Green Mountains, that counts as hours.”

There's data that backs him up. A study by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University that assessed cockpit performance, found that new pilots with between 500 and 1,000 hours of  flying time performed best.

Elizabeth Bjerke points to another study by the University of North Dakota."Our research showed that the pilots that did the best at the regional training were the ones coming from accredited aviation four year programs with around 700 hours. She says the data showed pilots with more flight time before being hired were more likely to have acquired bad habits that airlines needed to correct.

Andrew Bonney was part of a 2017 working group created by the US Department of Transportation to improve air service to small communities. He says the group identified the pilot shortage as the single biggest challenge to overcome and it called on Congress to allow pilots to take part in more targeted, plane-specific professional training programs while they earned the requisite flight hours.

Since 2007, Cape Air and Jet Blue have been collaborating on a 7-year apprenticeship program for aspiring aviation students aimed at providing just that sort of experience, and Bonney believes it could be a model for others. 

With demand for pilots skyrocketing, Elizabeth Bjerke says the number of students entering North Dakota’s commercial pilot program has jumped 30 percent each of the last two years.

And while the training is costly, Bjerke says the payoff is growing. “As little as two to three years ago, regional airlines took a lot of heat for their first year pay being about $25,000 to $30,000 a year.”

“Well now — because they are so short of pilots and they’re in competition —that pay, with signing bonuses, has gone up anywhere from $60,000 to $85,000 a year for that first year, which is remarkable,” she says.

While that’s good news for future pilots, industry experts say it will likely mean costlier ticket prices for passengers. And until the shortage is filled, travelers may see more frequent delays and cancelations as airlines struggle to staff flights.