Regional airline Southern Airways Express is bucking prevailing industry trends by expanding even as its peers struggle with pilot shortages and other issues.
The Florida-based airline is on the cusp of bidding for the “vast majority” of government contracts to serve 29 cities SkyWest Airlines is exiting due to a lack of pilots, Southern CEO Stan Little said. The destinations, which are spread across the country from Joplin, Mo., to Pueblo, Colo., and Lewisburg, W.V., are subsidized under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Essential Air Service (EAS) program. Applications are due by end-of-day May 11.
“I may be the only airline in the country that has more pilots than I need,” Little said. The airline employs almost 300 pilots.
Most U.S. regionals cannot say the same. Following the early departures of thousands of senior pilots at mainline carriers during the pandemic, these airlines — including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines — have been taking all available cockpit crew members to refill their rosters. This has drained the ranks of regional airlines, including at Cape Air, Horizon Air, and Mesa Airlines, and to a lesser degree at mid-tier carriers like Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways.
“This is a national issue. It’s affecting the whole domestic aviation industry but disproportionately affecting smaller regional carriers,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said of the pilot shortage on May 3.
Little credits Southern’s cadet program for its ample supply of pilots. Crew members join the airline when they have 500 hours, which is possible because Southern operates under a Part 135 certification. That certification means means pilots do not need an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate that requires a minimum of 1,500 hours in the cockpit. They commit to stay until they hit 1,800 hours but, during their time at Southern, they work as first officers and learn from the pilot-in-command until 1,200 hours. After that point, they can move to the left seat and repeat the training process until they reach their contracted hours. “It’s a career jumpstart,” said Little, who described the whole pipeline as “pilot creation” rather than “retention.”
Pilots have the opportunity to move to a job at SkyWest, which holds an undisclosed “strategic minority investment” in Southern, once they achieve 1,800 hours. In April, SkyWest CEO Chip Childs highlighted the airline’s equity partnership with Southern as a way to maintain air service to the 29 EAS cities it is exiting.
Expanding the pipeline of pilots is a hot topic today. Alaska and United have both opened their own flight schools with an aim of boosting the supply and diversifying pilot ranks. Other airlines offer dedicated job pathway programs through both wholly owned affiliate carriers and with flight schools. And Cape Air and Republic Airways have a partnership, the Lift Academy, similar to Southern’s cadet program where pilots train in the right seat at the former in exchange for a 12-month commitment and guaranteed job at the latter once they upgrade.
But, as successful as it is, the Lift Academy has not resulted in the same robust staffing numbers as the cadet program has at Southern. Cape Air has notified the DOT that it will end subsidized flights to two cities — Burlington, Iowa, and Quincy, Ill. — due to pilots. A Cape Air spokesperson said it will not apply for any of the 29 cities SkyWest is exiting. And in April, Republic requested an exemption to the FAA’s 1,500-hour rule for pilots who come through the Lift Academy that would allow them to receive an ATP at 750 hours.
“They’re finding a way to capitalize on the path,” said Ken Byrnes, chair of the flight department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Fla., campus, of Southern’s pilot strategy. That path is the one new pilots take from trainee to ATP certificate and ultimately a job flying at a major airline.
Asked what could make Southern’s program more successful than others, Byrnes said that it is difficult to “pinpont” an exact reason. He cited a variety of factors from wages to bases, career pathways, and even the nebulous idea of how much management listens to its pilots.
One difference between Southern and a competitor like Cape Air is the former’s pilots are not unionized. The latter’s cockpit crew members are represented by an arm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But there is no direct evidence suggesting a direct relationship between unionization and staffing numbers.
Southern is something of an industry darling, having only begun flying less than a decade ago, in 2013. Little describes Southern’s growth as an “evolutionary” process centered around one aircraft, the Cessna Caravan, and built on buying other small regional airlines. Southern has acquired five other carriers since it took off, including the April purchase of Air Choice One. The latest deal added seven more Caravans to Southern’s fleet, plus 16 pilots.
“Right now, our limiting factor right now is aircraft more than it is pilots,” said Little.
That limiting factor has produced what could be described as one of the most ad hoc fleet plans in the airline industry. In addition to Caravans, Southern operates Beechcraft King Airs, a Cessna Citiation, Saab 340s, and has just committed to up to six Tecnam P2012 Travellers. The airline has centered its strategy on the Caravan, but has needed additional lift for its growing diversity of missions and due, in part, to a lengthy backlog at Textron, Little said. For example, the King Airs can perform flights over the Rocky Mountains where pressurization is needed, and the Tecnam will be good for overwater flights.
“We recovered from the pandemic, and were profitable in 2021,” said Little on Southern’s outlook. “2022 is pacing to be our best year.”