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Why the Biggest Pilots Union Is Saying There’s No Pilot Shortage

Ted Reed
June 8th, 2022 at 11:24 AM EDT

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has reiterated its belief that no pilot shortage exists in the U.S, and instead blamed airlines’ scheduling exuberance and a failed regional carrier model for recent operational disruptions.

“The United States is producing a record number of pilots, yet some are still trying to claim we need to weaken aviation safety rules to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” ALPA President Joe DePete said in a statement on June 7.

ALPA stands alone in its view that there is no pilot shortage in the U.S. The CEOs of the big three carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines — all have said their regional affiliates face challenges hiring pilots. And even Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has acknowledged a shortage, saying in May that it was a “national issue” that was “disproportionately affecting smaller regional carriers.”

“Airlines aren’t canceling profitable routes, trimming capacity as domestic demand is soaring, leaving fares on the table and otherwise taking revenue hits because they want to play this ‘Is the earth flat or is it round?’ with the collective bargaining units,” Regional Airline Association (RAA) CEO Faye Malarkey Black said in response to DePete’s comments. 

Black added that the pilot shortage is real and said ALPA was seizing an opportunity to advocate for higher wages for its members. She added that regional airlines have been raising wages and offering bonuses.

Cape Air and CommutAir are two regional airlines that have recently increased pilot wages by as much as a third under newly ratified labor agreements. These contracts also include work rule and other quality of life improvements.

ALPA cites U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data that show 15,591 new air transport pilot, or ATP, licenses were issued between 2019 and 2021. During the same time, approximately 9,671 pilots retired, creating a surplus of about 6,000 available pilots, according to the union.

Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth estimated in May that U.S. airlines will hire roughly 12,000 pilots this year, another 8,000 in 2023 and 6,000 in 2024. 

Major carriers encouraged retirements during the pandemic as travel demand collapsed. The CEOs of American, Delta, and United have all said their airlines have no problem hiring pilots, while acknowledging the challenge at regionals and smaller airlines.

An ALPA official on June 7 said recent operational disruptions at major airlines were due to training bottlenecks, and retention issues at carriers like Spirit Airlines.

Most airlines have cut summer schedules in order to avoid further disruptions. Alaska Airlines has reduced its summer flying by 12 percent and JetBlue Airways by 10 percent. American and Southwest Airlines have said that training backlogs required capacity reductions of 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

The regional situation is different. 

American CEO Robert Isom said earlier in June that the carrier has grounded 100 regional jets at its American Eagle affiliates due to the pilot shortages. “There is a supply and demand imbalance right now, and it really is within the regional carrier ranks,” he said. And in November, United CEO Scott Kirby said his airline had also grounded 100 small jets.

“Some airlines have always had challenges recruiting and training pilots,” an ALPA spokesperson said. “Traditionally, regional airlines offered substandard wages and career opportunities,” but they have taken advantage of being “a required stop” in the process of preparing to work for a major carrier. “They had a captive audience.”

ALPA said carriers including Avelo Airlines, Breeze Airways, Frontier Airlines, Spirit, and Sun Country Airlines now hire “directly from early career opportunities into mainline, not requiring time at the regionals (which) has resulted in a constraint on the value proposition offered by regionals.”

Currently, the FAA requires that pilots have 1,500 hours of cockpit time before they receive an ATP license to fly a commercial aircraft. Some exemptions exist, including a requirement of 750 flight hours for former military pilots.

Indianapolis-based Republic Airways, the second-largest U.S. regional, recently asked the FAA to reduce the minimum number of hours required for pilots who come through its Lift Academy training program to 750. Republic executives have said their Lift Academy provides training comparable to military training.

Ted Reed
June 8th, 2022 at 11:24 AM EDT

Photo credit:  Flickr / Christian Galliker/Pilots Of Swiss

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