Roughly half of all passenger flights that serve about 500 U.S. cities are flown by the nation’s regional airlines.
Seventy-five percent of those cities are served exclusively by a regional airline.
The number of passengers regional airlines carry has grown from 82.5 million in 2000 to 161.4 million last year.
But a looming pilot shortage could eventually reduce the level of passenger service in cities both bigger and smaller than Wichita, according to Roger Cohen, the Regional Airline Association president. He spoke at the Wichita Aero Club luncheon Tuesday.
“The supply of pilots is going to be a major, major issue for us,” Cohen said.
The number of new pilot certificates is down, and the current pilot population is aging, Cohen said.
Military pilots are staying in the military for longer periods of time. And with airline bankruptcies and industry turmoil, a career as a professional airline pilot has lost some of its glamour.
A new requirement taking effect in August 2013 could further discourage students; it increases the number of flight hours they must have before they can apply with an airline, Cohen said.
The change will require an applicant to have 1,500 flight hours. That’s up from the 500 to 1,000 hours required now, depending on a pilot’s training and other factors.
The change sends a message that the pilots must fly around in circles to get the required time in the air.
“Spraying crops or towing banners over the beach” doesn’t compare to a structured program, Cohen said.
Cohen urged people to contact their representatives in Congress to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to change the requirement.
Aviation also should become a national priority, and more government funds should be available to facilitate pilot training, he said.
Training is expensive. Some students finish aviation training colleges with huge college loans, he said, while starting salaries for airline co-pilots are about $30,000 a year.
But for those who want to fly, jobs will be available.
“They’re paying you to fly an airplane, and that’s pretty cool,” Cohen said.
While regional airline service has grown, their operations have improved, Cohen said.
In fact, May was the second-best month for on-time performance since the Department of Transportation began keeping records, he said.
At the same time, safety is the highest priority.
“In fact, now is the highest period of safety in aviation safety. This is the safest time,” Cohen said.
Cohen noted that airline service at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, which is heavily served by regional airlines, is comparable to other cities its size.
With 34 daily departures, Wichita’s departures are higher than those in Fresno, Calif.; Baton Rouge, La.; Sarasota, Fla.; and Birmingham, Ala.
Wichita has direct, nonstop service to six of the nine largest U.S. hubs
“From there, you can get anywhere in the globe,” he said.
Cohen became president of the Regional Airline Association in December 2006, after serving as vice president for regional affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. He also served as managing director of state and local affairs for the Air Transport Association.