Cape Air CEO Linda Markham is worried that airlines are doing the industry a disservice in pursuing individual approaches to boosting pilot supply as the industry works to ease the shortage in the U.S.
“I almost wish there could be a conversation around a table about working together, and not robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. That’s been the biggest challenge,” Markham said. While the numerous pilot pathways — job commitments provided by an airline for trainees that join a specific program — help increase supply, they have fostered a competitive environment among airlines of all sizes for pilots that can be detrimental to the industry as a whole, she added.
This competitiveness has created challenges for the airlines at the bottom of the industry ladder: regionals. Carriers ranging from sector leaders Republic Airways and SkyWest Airlines to Alaska Airlines-subsidiary Horizon Air and independent Cape Air are all seeing elevated attrition rates that have forced them to pare flying this year, and likely into 2023. In recent weeks the issues have spread to major airlines, including Alaska and JetBlue Airways, which cancelled flights due to pilot and broader staffing shortages.
And although almost all airline executives are sounding the alarm about the shortage, there is little collaboration across the industry, from regionals to low-cost carriers and major airlines. And, complicating matters, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) denies there is a shortage.
“All airlines are impacted by the shortage and are taking determined, but individual steps to remedy,” Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black said when asked about industry collaboration to address the shortage. A unified approach is “particularly important,” she said, and added that industry stakeholders are at least united in lobbying Congress to help lower the barriers to entry to becoming a pilot. ALPA, she said, is the only major player that is not participating.
Cape Air was among the first airlines that identified and worked to ease what was long a looming pilot shortage. The airline launched one of the first U.S. pathway programs, with JetBlue, in 2007, and now has since added a similar offering with Spirit Airlines. And, last year, Cape Air launched a partnership with the Leadership in Flight Training Academy, of LIFT Academy, where graduates fly as first officers for the airline until they qualify for captain after which they spend 12 months at Cape Air before transitioning to Republic.
Cape Air is generally happy with its pathway programs and partnership with LIFT Academy, Markham said in an interview with Airline Weekly. However, first officers often leave as soon as they qualify to fly at a larger regional and that is detrimental to Cape Air. “We need to have a return on our investment because, with our first officer program, we’re blocking the right seat and that’s a missed revenue opportunity of us,” she said.
The airline’s fleet of 70 Cessna 402s seat nine passengers, including one in the right seat of the cockpit. If that seat is blocked, Cape Air can only sell eight out of nine seats on the aircraft. Its 30 Tecnam P2012 Travellers seat nine passengers without one in the right seat of the cockpit.
Markham hopes that a new letter of agreement with Cape Air’s pilots, represented by an arm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, that includes improved wages and work rules will help it retain more crew members for longer. Pilots are currently voting on the agreement.
Pay increases and other work-rule improvements would help address the number-one complaint among pilots: low wages. Many pilots blame the current shortage on the high cost of training and poor entry-level pay once someone is certified and begins flying for an airline.
One change that Markham is not calling for is a repeal of the U.S. FAA’s rule requiring that all commercial airline pilot have 1,500 hours of training. While other regional airline executives have called for its repeal, Cape Air is focused on working with the regulator to develop credits for training that can be applied to reduce the hour requirement. However, the unexpected departure of FAA Administrator Steve Dickson at the end of March, Markham said they “feel a little bit like we’re starting over again” on developing a credits program.
The pilot shortage has forced Cape Air to shrink its summer schedule, as many U.S. carriers have done. The carrier has exited Portland, Maine, which Markham said performed well last year. It also will operate fewer extra flights, or sections, on busy routes during peak periods this summer.
“Really, it’s a lot of the incremental flying that we’ve had to pull down,” Markham said. “Our big three is Boston [to] Nantucket, P’town, and Martha’s Vineyard — that’s where we’re really going to be looking at protecting our capacity.”
The cuts come just as travel demand is roaring back. Summer bookings at Cape Air already exceed 2019 numbers, said Markham. That makes its inability to fly additional sections on popular routes even more significant. Cape Air competes with JetBlue on its core routes between Boston and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket during the summer; a competitor that, with larger planes, can pick up many of the passengers the regional is likely to spill without adding frequencies.
Cape Air is scheduled to fly 8.5 percent fewer seats during the peak June-August period than it did in 2019, according to Cirium data. In addition to its core New England markets, the airline also has operations in the Caribbean, Midwest, and Montana.
But Cape Air’s current pilot issues have not stopped it from planning for the future. The airline signed a letter of intent with developer Eviation for 75 all-electric Alices earlier in April. The agreement built on a loose tie-up Eviation and Cape Air unveiled at the Paris Airshow in 2019. Eviation targets FAA certification for the nine-seat electric aircraft by 2024 — two years later than previously planned — with the delivery schedule to Cape Air still in negotiations.
“Our focus now is on the infrastructure to support electric aircraft at airports,” Markham said. “That’s some of the work that lies ahead of us.”
Updated to remove references to Horizon Air and Mountain Air Express as part of Cape Air’s pilot pathways program.