Mentour pilot explains the background to the U.S. pilot shortage – and it may come down to union rules:

How it works

Legacy airlines (United, Delta, American) have high pilot salaries. To serve smaller markets, the resorted to outsoucing flights to smaller “regional” airlines that fly under the bigger carriers brand names.

These regional carries including Republic, Skywest, Horizon and others – who fly United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle – or even brand name flights as Horizon does for Alaska.

This was done to get around the legacy carriers high pilot salaries – which are not seen as working when serving smaller airports on smaller aircraft.

But the legacy carrier pilots didn’t want to enable the upstart regional airlines to take away high paying jobs. So they legacy carrier pilot contracts have restrictions that prohibit subcontracted regional air carriers from flying more than 76 passenger planes.

This has resulted in some markets where there are now, say, 2 to 4 flights per day on small aircraft – which would likely be served more effectively as 1 or 2 flights per day using a larger Boeing 737, Airbus A220 or A320 – which would also be more fuel efficient and emit less carbon.

But the contracts do not permit this.

After public health largely shut down most air carrier operations, airlines lost 10-20% of their staff due to furloughs, quitting, and moving on to other careers. Couple with pilot demographics, a very large cohort of pilots are over 50-55 and will be retiring within the next ten years (probably a third). Meanwhile, the incoming cohort of young pilots is small.

The new cohort historically started out at smaller regional airlines – where pay was also much less. But in the current market, these newer pilots have been rapidly moving up into open positions at the legacy carriers, creating a shortage of regional pilots.

To address this, some of the regionals have given a +50% salary increase to their pilots.

Gradually, the difference between legacy carrier and regional pilot salaries is shrinking sharply.

As they become more equivalent, several things might happen

  • Smaller markets will see higher air fares
  • Legacy carriers might decide they no longer need regional air carriers to keep their lower cost structures for smaller markets
  • Regional air carriers might end up being bought by the legacy carriers and turned into regular flights, enabling the legacy carrier to begin using larger aircraft with fewer flight crews and fewer daily flights – for many smaller airports.
  • A plane that carries 2x to 3x the passengers with the same 2 pilots means fewer pilots needed; and a 1 or 2 flights per day instead of 2 or 4 means fewer pilots needed. Bingo – we solve the pilot shortage.
  • Since larger aircraft are often inherently more fuel efficient, and especially when carrying full loads, they are also more business efficient (fewer trips to carry the same number of passengers), this might eventually improve pricing in smaller markets.
  • Will unions permit this, though? Probably not. Instead we will continue to operate inefficient services to maintain the status quote of needed more pilots rather than solve the problem with business process improvements.

The upshot is the shortage of pilots in the U.S. might have been created by this bizarre union mandated airline structure of legacy versus regional carriers. And it may finally be time to end this bizarre business model.

Indeed, the pilot’s union claims there is no shortage of pilots at all while simultaneously structuring contracts to prohibit regionals from flying larger aircraft, as smaller communities have been losing service due to the “non-existent” pilot shortage. ALPA appears to be holding the public hostage.

Yes, the young cohort of new workers is smaller than in recent decades and contributes to the shortage. Further, seniority and retirement rules, and medical requirements, mean up to 1/3d of pilots will be retiring or leaving the field by 2030. It’s a bad combination. The business-as-usual solution is to try and hire more pilots and run our airlines the same way we have for the past 2-3 decades. Another approach might be to look for business process improvements – and begin implementing those too.

By EdwardM