New rules on flight hours create pilot shortage for regional airlines

Kirby Ortega, left, director of flight operations at Yingling Aviation, works with his student Andrew Nichols inside a Cessna 172. Nichols is a pilot working on his instrument rating. Pilots who want to advance their training to fly for regional airlines are required to have 1,500 flight hours, up from 250.
Kirby Ortega, left, director of flight operations at Yingling Aviation, works with his student Andrew Nichols inside a Cessna 172. Nichols is a pilot working on his instrument rating. Pilots who want to advance their training to fly for regional airlines are required to have 1,500 flight hours, up from 250. The Wichita Eagle

Andrew Loder wants to be an airline pilot.

But the 23-year-old Kansas State University senior, who will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical technology from the school’s Salina campus, will have to wait before he can sit in the right seat as a co-pilot of a regional airliner.

That’s because of a rule implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2013. It requires pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 flying hours – up from 250 hours – before they can sit in the cockpit of a regional jet as a first officer.

As it stands, the Lindsborg native estimates he’ll have to wait another year after graduation before he can get on with a regional airline and begin working toward his ultimate goal of becoming a pilot for a major airline.

“When I officially graduate in May, it would be nice to have 550, 600 (flight) hours,” Loder said. “It’ll really depend on the weather and scheduling.”

Even then, Loder will need to accumulate another 400 to 450 flight hours – for a total of 1,000 hours – before he can get on with a regional airline, where he said he can get a restricted Air Transport Pilot certificate and start flying a passenger jet.

And that’s the rub for regional airlines.

They say the higher flight-hours requirement is creating a shortage of pilots for them, in some cases prompting their regional airline members to cut flights because they don’t have enough pilots.

“The pilot shortage is real, and its impact is already being felt,” Faye Malarkey Black, interim president of the Regional Airline Association, said in an e-mail to The Eagle. “Service cuts are taking place, and some regional airlines have had to park aircraft.”

A lack of pilots seems to largely be a regional airline issue at this point, although regional pilots have traditionally moved on after a few years to the major airlines. That traditional path has been blunted by the recession, job cuts and flight reductions made by airlines, mergers between major airlines, and an increase in the pilot retirement age to 65.

Shortages elsewhere in aviation are not yet evident, a business aviation industry official said. But the supply of pilots who fly business jets for companies and fractional operators has thinned, he said.

“We certainly have noticed there is a tightening in the supply, mainly because the commercial carriers are hiring more aggressively,” said Steve Brown, chief operating officer for the National Business Aviation Association.

He said he’s not sure there will be a shortage of corporate pilots because the lifestyles of a commercial and business pilot are different – corporate pilots are generally home each night – and new corporate pilots can start flying passengers right away. They don’t have to have an Air Transport Pilot certificate like regional airline pilots do.

“It’s not a minimum baseline requirement to be a first officer,” he said.

He acknowledged that in the long run, airline pilots “might make a little more than you would in business aviation.”

According to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage in May 2012 was $114,200 for an airline pilot and $73,280 for a commercial pilot. But the disparity between rookies and veterans can be huge.

According to the Airline Pilots Association, most airline pilots start at an annual salary of $20,000. The average captain at a regional airline earns about $55,000, and the average captain at a major airline earns about $135,000.

Quality vs. quantity?

The Regional Airline Association said its efforts to stem the shortage include lobbying Congress and the FAA to modify the 1,500-hour requirement. RAA said the requirement provides limited credit for academic, structured training and quality time in a real or simulated cockpit.

“Flight time alone is not an appropriate proxy for experience,” RAA’s Malarkey Black said in the e-mail. “A pilot may have high flight time but low relative experience because he or she built hours in a single engine aircraft flying in fair weather. On the other hand, a pilot with a lower number of flight hours may have gained higher quality experience because he or she obtained an education and enjoyed access to advanced aircraft flight simulators, scenario-based training, and other methods that produce extremely high pilot proficiency.”

Barney King, interim head of K-State’s aviation department, said regional airlines such as Minneapolis-based Endeavor Air and Atlanta-based ExpressJet recruit heavily at the Salina campus.

ExpressJet also has what King calls a “pathway” program for pilot students that gets students in the regional airline’s pilot pipeline after passing a series of interviews and tests and meeting other requirements.

“The regionals, they are really looking for people,” King said.

ExpressJets is where Loder hopes to start his airline career. He said he has a “conditional, standing job offer” with the airline that if he meets certain requirements, including grade point average and attaining 1,000 flight hours – and the airline is hiring when he’s met those requirements – he can get a restricted ATP and begin flying with them.

After Loder graduates, he plans to rack up those hundreds of flight hours by working primarily as a flight instructor at K-State Salina.

He said the wait is worth it. Up until his junior year, Loder was pursing an engineering degree at K-State’s Manhattan campus.

“It’s one of those things that, ever since I can remember, flying is cool,” Loder said. “It’s the ultimate job. It was one of those easy decisions once I kind of decided to apply myself toward it.”

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jsiebenmark.

Not enough pilots

The Regional Airline Association says higher FAA flight-hour requirements for new airline pilots are creating a shortage, exacerbating what it says will be a coming shortage.

▪ Total number of pilots that will be needed, globally, over the next 20 years: 500,000

▪ Retirements at the top four U.S. major airlines alone over the next 10 years: 18,000

▪ Total pilots employed by all U.S. regional airlines (primary hiring source for major airlines): 18,000

Source: RAA