The Regional Airline Association (RAA), which represents the airlines that provide 43% of scheduled passenger flights in the U.S. and offer the only source of scheduled air service to most of the country, announced today the ongoing, severe pilot shortage has led to diminished or lost air service at 76% of U.S. airports, according to OAG published schedule data for October 2022 compared to the same 2019 period.
“We now have more than 500 regional aircraft parked without pilots to fly them and an associated air service retraction at 324 communities,” said Faye Malarkey Black, RAA CEO. “14 airports have lost all scheduled commercial air service – a number that is still rising.”
The U.S. pilot shortage has many causes, but one of them is the fundamental structure of the US airline industry.
Regional airlines under contract to the major carriers are prohibited from carrying more than 76 passengers per flight. This means, in some cases, regional flights fly more frequently but smaller loads to small airports versus flying a single B-737 or A-320. That means more pilots are needed than necessary. This restriction is imposed by major carrier union rules – to prevent majors, with higher pay, from outsourcing more flights to regional carriers with lower salary costs.
The U.S. and only the U.S. requires all pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time before being eligible for any crew position. This came about because of the Colgan air disaster a couple of decades ago. Then, a flight crashed due to icing and crew mismanagement. Congress stepped in among demands to “do something, anything” and arbitrarily established the 1,500-hour minimum. Both pilots on the Colgan flight had over 1,500 hours.
Training to become an airline pilot is expensive. Students must generally complete private, instrument, twin-engine, commercial license ratings on their own dime, and then typically spend 1-2 years or more working as a low paid flight instructor or perhaps flying small overnight cargo planes or scenic charter flights. Many students may take on debts of $100,000 or more to pay for this career path.
After getting sufficient hours, they can then begin to apply for a regional carrier position. Historically, new pilots at regional carriers had very low salaries (think minimum wage – or less – considering the total number of hours worked). Once hired, new pilots will undergo many months of company training.
Regionals are now paying better salaries, which should help – eventually. But the new pilot pipeline is up to 3 or more years long before qualifying for a regional position. Thus, the pilot shortage may be here for quite some time.
Other factors include that up to 1/3 of airline pilots will retire over the next ten years, and that pandemic travel restrictions resulted in losing 10-20% of all pilots (some took early retirement while some chose to leave the field and take jobs elsewhere – many pilots have college education in other lucrative fields such as engineering). And of course, demographics and a low fertility rate have left us with a smaller “young cohort” from which new workers come. Eventually, the U.S. will either need to import more pilots and/or stop flying so many low passenger count aircraft – which require more pilots flying more times per day.