Monday, February 29, 2016

Small airlines face challenges landing pilots: Salaries, market shifts push talent toward big carriers

When United Express ended its service between Albany and Cleveland, it blamed a shortage of regional airline pilots.

When Republic Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy organization on Thursday, it, too, blamed a shortage of pilots.

Regional carriers, which operate more than half the commercial flights nationwide, are parking planes because they can't staff the cockpits.

Republic, which operates at least four daily departures at Albany International Airport, said parking its "out of favor aircraft" while continuing to make payments on them reduced revenues and contributed to its Chapter 11 filing.

The 50- to 70-seat regional jets, once so popular with travelers, have fallen out of favor as airlines shift to larger planes to carry more passengers per pilot.

The newer, larger aircraft also are more fuel-efficient.

Not that this matters. Plunging oil prices have produced a windfall for mainline carriers.

Able to offer higher salaries and better benefits, those carriers have their pick of regional airline pilots.

The Air Line Pilots Association, meanwhile, estimated in a 2014 posting that Republic pilots that year made just $20,655 annually.

New mandates that required more experience for pilot candidates, which followed the 2009 crash in Buffalo of a Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air, reduced the candidate pool even as starting salaries remained low.

Regional carriers are working with their mainline partners to make beginning pilots' jobs more attractive.

When United Express carrier Commutair announced it was adding Embraer regional jets to its fleet of turboprops, and that they'd be maintained at its Albany base, it also said it would participate in United's Career Path Program.

That gives pilots at CommutAir a "clear and reliable path" to a job with United.

Steven Baldwin, an airports consultant at Latham-based Steven Baldwin Associates, doesn't believe the regional pilot shortage will be a long-term problem.

Airlines, he said, will find a way to attract pilots, likely through guaranteeing minimum salaries and employment.

In the meantime, however, carriers are trimming service at some of the smaller airports and substituting larger planes.

An airport that previously had three regional flights might see one flight with a larger aircraft.

Baldwin said Cape Air, which operates a fleet of nine-seat aircraft and has its maintenance base at Albany, notified Rhode Island officials it is ending seasonal service between Providence and Block Island, a popular resort destination in the Long Island Sound, citing a shortage of pilots.

Schenectady County Community College offers programs to train both pilots and air traffic controllers.

Pilots for mainline carriers such as United need at least a bachelor's degree to be considered for openings in the cockpit.

Original article can be found here:

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