Pilot Shortage a Myth, Says ALPA

Aviation International News » April 2014
April 3, 2014, 3:10 AM

While the Regional Airline Association and regional airline management point to new rules governing flight time experience for first officers as the primary reason for a pilot shortage that has resulted in a loss of service to several U.S. communities, pilots contend the airlines have made their own mess by creating a business model predicated on breadline wages for cockpit crew. The Air Line Pilots Association, for one, argues that there’s no shortage of pilots, only a shortage of pilots willing to fly for substandard wages and inadequate benefits.

ALPA points to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to support its position. In it, the GAO references data to indicate that a large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand. However, the report also found that it remains unclear whether or not those pilots would be willing to work for the wages now on offer.

Historical labor market data from 2000 through 2012 provide mixed evidence as to whether there really is an airline pilot shortage, according to the GAO. The unemployment rate for the pilot occupation–a key indicator for a shortage–averaged lower than for the economy as a whole, said the report. However, wage earnings and employment didn’t correlate with the existence of a shortage, as data for both indicators showed decreases over the period, it added.

“As airlines have started hiring to address growth demands and attrition, 11 of the 12 regional airlines we interviewed reported difficulties filling entry-level first-officer vacancies,” said the GAO. “Mainline airlines, since they hire experienced pilots largely from regional airlines, have not reported similar difficulties, although mainline airline representatives expressed concerns that entry-level hiring problems could affect the ability of their regional partners to provide service to some locations.”

During the month of February alone, three regional airlines announced plans to curtail service and attributed their decisions directly to a pilot shortage. (See article on page XX.) Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Silver Airways issued its required 90-day notice to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to end scheduled service between Cleveland and Jamestown, N.Y., Bradford, DuBois, and Franklin, Pa., and Parkersburg, W.Va., no later than May 15.

For its part, Great Lakes Aviation suspended service on February 1 from Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; Ironwood, Mich; and Thief River Falls, Minn., blaming the decision on “the severe industry-wide pilot shortage and its relatively acute impact on Great Lakes,” according to a company statement. Finally, Indianapolis-based Republic Airways said it will remove 27 of 41 Embraer ERJ-140s from service this spring; the airline flies 15 of the 27 for American Airlines and the other 12 for United Airlines. Republic estimates that the rule change will result in the creation of 750 fewer jobs than originally planned at the company this year.

Sufficient Labor Force Available

But while the airlines complain about the lack of qualified pilot applicants, ALPA insists that the numbers show otherwise. The union points to statistics showing that while there were 72,000 pilot jobs in 2012, 137,658 active pilots under the age of 65 and with first-class medical certificates held ATP certificates on January 30. Another 105,000 pilots who could potentially qualify for an ATP hold instrument ratings and commercial certificates, it added.

“There is a quantifiable shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry, not a shortage of pilots who are capable and certified to fly the airlines’ equipment,” ALPA asserts in a statement. “According to ALPA’s figures, which vary from the GAO’s just slightly, the average starting salary for new first officers in the regional airline industry is only $22,400, which compares very poorly with the starting salaries of other fields for which university aviation program graduates are qualified to enter…”

Examples of positions ALPA cites as appropriate for such degrees include that of test engineer, which, it said, pays an average starting salary of $52,500, operations manager at $55,000 and second lieutenant pilot in the Air Force at $53,616 in salary and allowances.

ALPA asserts that the regional airline industry did not adequately prepare for today’s pilot hiring environment. Congress introduced the legislation that would eventually require 1,500 hours of flying experience and an ATP for new-hire first officers five years ago, the association contends, further noting that six years ago the industry knew that a large number of pilots would reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 around this time.

“Although some within the airline industry blame the legislation and resulting FAA airline pilot qualifications and training rules for a pilot shortage, the airline industry actually helped craft those rules and supported their passage,” according to ALPA.

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Avi8r
on April 3, 2014 - 9:08am

Isn't ALPA partially responsible for the extremely low wages of new hires in that they are the ones who come up with the pay scale? The way I understand it is that management gives out x amount of money and the union is the one who divides it among the pilots. Granted I'm sure there could be more total money given from management but it is ALPA who dictates how much everyone gets, is it not?

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ATP
on April 3, 2014 - 11:43am

No ALPA is not responsible for the disproportionately low wages in the manner you are suggesting. First, management doesn't give ALPA pilot negotiators a slice of pie with carte blanche authority to divide it however they see fit. And second, if your hypothesis were correct, then simply being non ALPA would yield a different result.

Remuneration packages have the same construct whether at a non ALPA union carrier like Republic Airways (IBT represented), or non union carriers altogther such as at SkyWest or JetBlue.

The same goes for the seniority based system concept. Non union carriers subscribe to seniority based systems just as much as those represented by ALPA or another agent. This is common in many professions where there are shifts, odd hours, and independent work assignments away from the exciting world of M-F offices and cubicles. Examples would be police officers, doctors and nurses, etc.

Regional Airlines managements have desired extremely low and top heavy compensation packages for many years (i.e. they favor longer tenured employees) . This is because the vast majority of the employees are no where near top of scale, therefore total compensation spend is greatly reduced. If they churn and burn their employees prior to ever having to pay a living wage (10+ years on the scale), then it's a win.

It was a win, and a scheme that worked for Regional Airline managments for many years. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Like the quote from the movie The Right Stuff: No bucks, no Buck Rogers.

No Avatar
Avi8r
on April 3, 2014 - 12:29pm

Interesting. Thanks for the clarification. This was just the way an XJT recruiter spun the argument on us at a presentation when asked about the low starting salaries. This situation should get pretty interesting in the coming months/years. I'm hoping by the time I have 1000 hrs and a restricted ATP, (hopefully 2 years or less), the regional airlines will have become much smaller (not that I want to see pilots out of jobs but more along the lines of mainline carriers taking back flying). I get the feeling this will happen as opposed to pay increasing significantly at the regional level.

No Avatar
ATP
on April 3, 2014 - 10:13pm

No problem. We are all new in the industry at some time in our careers and often have to learn the industry realities over time.

I don't think there is a way to IM each other on this forum, however, if you are comfortable posting an email address, I would be happy to contact you to discuss our industry further.

Take care,

ATP

No Avatar
samaritan
on April 16, 2014 - 2:04am

I am a former Regional (commuter) Captain pilot and former member of ALPA so I know a little about what I am taking about regarding the relationship between pilot shortage and pilot pay. I left the airline industry due to low pilot pay but I am still qualified if the pay was higher. Many of my former commuter pilot friends are in the same position. I have an African American male pilot friend who left the airline industry to start a trucking company becasue of the low pilot pay. While a commuter airline Captain, I watched in horror as ALPA did not care about the vast difference in pilot pay between pilots at the regionals and Majors. I always thought that airline mamagement was using the Regionals as a test-bed to prove pilots would wotk for low wages and then force these low wages at the Regionals on to the Major airline pilots.The Unions caused the auto industry many problems, so why are the unions not subject to blame by one commenter to this article? Most other industries do not have unions and seniority lists and just let the market set the pay scale. There is a truth to the copmmenter who said the Unions at the Majors take the bulk of the pilot pay portion of the ticket price a passenger pays to fly from A to B even though the Union konws part of the flight will be on a Regional plane. The passenger should have a vote on their pilots' pay since the Regional airline pilot can kill the passenger just as the Major airline pilot can kill the passenger. It is not logical nor tenable for the commenter to this article nor ALPA at the Majors to say like a child, "Don't Blame Me" because the truth is that if a passenger buys an airline ticket, the passenger has no clue as to how their money is divided up between all the pilots. It is simple common sense that if the ticket price a passenger pays is increased to pay for the higher Regional pilot salaries, the passenger may elect to drive rather than fly. Airline pilots like to think they are intelligent so how can an airline pilot believe that if the ticket price remained the same but all pilot pay for every pilot utilized on the ticket price was the same, that the passenger would be happy and still buy tickets at the same price? Major airline pilots may deserve their pay, but if the passenger is only willing to pay the same low ticket price that has been based for years on the low regional pilot pay scales, where is the money going to come from to lure the qualified and exprienced pilots now in other businesses back to the regional airline cockpit? 

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