On September 18, 2014 Aviation Week and Space Technology ran a Viewpoint column penned by Captain Lee Moak about the pilot shortage being a myth. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time in communities of all sizes talking about air service issues, the simple fact is that a pilot shortage is underway as evidenced by frequency cuts and crews timing out. Whereas I have tremendous respect for Captain Moak, I simply disagree and believe that the unions have had a lot to do with certain of the issues impacting the supply of pilots. I penned the following rebuttal which is in this week’s edition of Aviation Week and Space Technology. I will include the text below as well.
But before I go there, anyone who knows me appreciates the importance of golf in my life. Of course it runs second to family. My stepson, Sam Stilwell, one of the coolest dudes on the planet, plays for the Wittenberg Tigers. This week he won his first college tournament in the cold, wind and the rain. He shot a second round 69 that included a penalty stroke when a gust of wind caused his umbrella to touch his ball. Bummer, but in golf they call that the rub of the green. In addition, Sam was named the North Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Week. Way to go dawg.
One of Sam’s teammates, Jared Wissinger, hit one of the greatest flop shots I have ever witnessed in the Gordin Classic last week. Jared hit his second shot well left of the par 5 8th green during his third round. Facing a short side pin, a bunker and a green running away from him Wissinger hit an improbable shot to six feet and made birdie. In track and field we have the Fosbury Flop and now we have the Wissinger Flop in golf. Give someone 50 tries and few if any would have been inside Jared’s shot.
Whereas there are many negative comments on the Aviation Week site regarding my piece, I am sure to get more here.
Opinion: How Unions Contribute To Pilot Shortage
No one should have been surprised to read on this Viewpoint page that the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) thinks there is no pilot shortage in the U.S. (Opinion: The Pilot Shortage Myth, AW&ST Sept. 15, p. 58). Instead, ALPA President Lee Moak blames a pay shortage, particularly at the regional airline level. While Moak tells many half-truths with regard to numbers, he forgets to mention a truism: It is his union and other labor organizations that collectively bargain for the pay and work rules at the nation’s regional airlines.
ALPA talks about creating a level playing field without referencing the union’s own role in determining pay and benefits at the regional level. A race to the bottom has been a part of organized labor’s DNA for decades, in part because low labor rates at regional carriers cross-subsidize the higher rates paid at the mainline airlines.
Pilot union interests and small-community air service issues are often in conflict. Now the truth is out: The economics of the regional market are distorted, influenced by middlemen like ALPA and unresponsive to markets dependent on regional airline service.
The news media are just beginning to focus on the pending pilot shortage—a story that will play out at least through 2022 unless something is done. Regional air service in the U.S. could die a death of a thousand frequency cuts and isolate communities now dependent on this sector for access to the national air transportation grid.
At more than 265 mainland U.S. airports today, more than 90% of departures are by regional operators. Regional airlines provide more than half of the departures in 35 states and account for 22% of the nation’s flights to airports large and small.
Three legislative and regulatory changes have had a profound impact on pilot staffing. In 2007, Congress passed a law that moved the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots to 65 from 60. Then, in response to the 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York, the FAA and Congress increased the flying time required for an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) rating to 1,500 hr. from 250. Finally, this year, new crew rest regulations went into effect, essentially forcing airlines to hire additional people to do the same level of flying. Regional airlines are now struggling to fill classes of pilots that meet the new requirements at the same time qualified pilots are moving to network carriers.
The Age 65 Rule by itself does not impact the number of pilots needed per se. However, a substantial number of pilots are facing mandatory retirement at the network carriers, and this will have a major impact on the number of replacement pilots needed going forward. Between 2015 and 2022, more than 14,000 pilots are expected to retire from the “Big Four” U.S. airlines alone. That many will need to be hired just to retain today’s level of flying at American, Delta, United and Southwest. This does not take into account any growth or count the needs of other U.S. carriers. Assuming today’s regional pool of pilots will be the primary source of labor, demand will easily surpass the 18,000 flying for regionals today.
At the regional level, pilot availability is akin to a Ponzi scheme. Today, an airline can trim enough frequencies to fly some or most of its network, but at some point those airlines will have little choice but to exit their least profitable markets. And only when vacated markets reach a critical mass will legislators and the regulators take note that the nation’s route map architecture is forever altered.
At risk are millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic impact on those communities that rely on regional service to support their economies. Perhaps ALPA needs to acknowledge its role in the problem and be part of the solution by advocating a more equitable distribution of pay across its member base.
This is an industry problem that will require broad stakeholder involvement—and action—in addition to ALPA revisiting its methods on pay distribution across its membership. This is an issue that could result in lost air service for some communities as an unintended consequence of ill-advised legislation. The FAA and Congress need to revisit the legislation mandating 1,500 hr. for an ATP license. And a push from the Transportation Department, which historically has championed small-community air service, would not hurt, either.