Officials at small to medium-sized airports such as Springfield’s are worried about what they see as a looming pilot shortage for the regional carriers that serve those airports.
Although there are other factors, they say the main culprit is a six-fold increase in the number of training hours required to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot certificate.
“This is hurting small to medium-size airports,” said Mark Hanna, executive director of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. “This is hampering Springfield. We’ve had flights delayed a number of hours because the crew is not back from another hub.”
“It’s an economic development issue that affects everyone,” he said.
Hanna was an early signer of a letter sent by the American Association of Airport Executives to leaders of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure as it worked on the federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The committee last week passed the bill to the full House.
The letter asked the committee to address the pilot shortage and specifically the 1,500-hour requirement, when it considered the legislation.
“This new requirement has dramatically increased both the time and cost of becoming a commercial airline pilot,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, the greater financial burden and debt associated with becoming a commercial airline pilot are deterring many young people from pursuing a career in aviation.”
The letter says that some communities have lost all commercial air service due to a lack of pilots. The Intervistas Consulting Group reports that more than 30 communities that had commercial air service in 2013 have lost all service.
According to a 2014 report by the Government Accounting Office, 11 of 12 regional airlines it had contacted had trouble filling pilot openings. Regional airlines account for more than half of all the domestic flight departures in the United States.
The 1,500-hour requirement grew out of the Feb.12, 2009, crash of a Colgan Air flight in Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the primary cause of the crash was the pilots’ incorrect response to stall warnings.
Relatives of crash victims who lobbied for the increase in hours have said they’ll fight any changes.
“It (the training hours requirement) was an emotional decision by Congress,” Hanna said. “It bypassed the normal regulatory process. It’s almost a slap in the face to the regional airlines, saying that they don’t trust their training curriculum.”
“None of it was based on NTSB findings,” he said.
Hanna said the training requirement was 250 hours “for as long as I can remember.”
“There isn’t anyone in the industry that would do anything that would compromise safety,” he said. “It was a decades-long process, tried and true.”
He said graduates of college aviation programs could leave school with at least close to 250 hours, then make up the rest with charter or corporate flights.
The military isn’t graduating and delivering the number of pilots to the industry it once did and is offering incentives to retain the pilots it has, Hanna added.
Pilots starting out at a regional airline make between $20,000 and $30,000 a year, sometimes less, and that also is a factor in the shortage. The cost of training can run $50,000 or more.
Pilots for regional airlines also continue to graduate to the ranks of major airlines.
Patrick Smith, a pilot and blogger on air travel and the airlines industry, says that although the replacement pool of regional air pilots is becoming more shallow, the major airlines aren’t experiencing a shortage.
Two regional carriers fly out of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport — American Eagle, operated by ExpressJet, and United Express, flown by SkyWest Airlines. Both are owned by the holding company SkyWest Inc.
“We have a very good relationship with SkyWest, and meet with them several times a year,” Hanna said. “The pilot shortage is one of chief concerns of theirs when they look at and evaluate new routes and sustaining current routes.”
SkyWest operates three flights a day to and from Chicago out of Capital Airport.
“They want to fly more, expand the market,” Hanna said. “But they don’t have the human resources. We (regional airports) all have routes on the table that airlines may consider if they had the resources to do it.”
Hanna said the problem can be easily fixed.
“It would take two to four sentences to change the requirement back to 250 hours — or even 500,” he said. “But really … six times is unreasonable. I don’t understand why there’s no motivation to change this.”