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Without Pilots, Regional Airlines Go Back to School

Robbie Feinberg

If you’ve tried to catch a flight on a regional airline over the past few months, you might have noticed a troubling trend: flights are getting scarcer as regional carriers scramble to find enough pilots to fly their planes. Now, to fix the problem, those airlines are going back to school.

To understand why these carriers don’t have enough pilots, you have to go back to a bill passed in 2010 in the wake of a deadly plane crash in New York. The law upped the number of flying hours a pilot needed to get a commercial license to be a first officer from 250 up to 1,500.

The law was designed to make sure pilots were better prepared before they started on the job. But it made getting your commercial pilot’s license a lot harder.

So with more pilots retiring and fewer available to take over, regional carriers like Great Lakes and Republic Airways have started scrapping flights because they can’t find new hires.

"If you asked a major airline, they would say no, we have 6,000 applications on file and that’s where we’re at right now," says Martin Rottler, the bridge program coordinator for Ohio State University's College of Aviation. "But if you were to ask a regional airline, they’d say we need 50 pilots yesterday." 

Rottler says the regional airlines serve as a kind of minor league for major carriers like Southwest and Delta. So the problem is only just beginning.

"Because what we see today with the regionals is small potatoes compared to what we’ll see in a decade with the larger airlines," he says.

A lot of the problem comes down to cost. Rottler says that even at a four-year school, a student will only receive about 250 to 300 hours of flight training. That alone can cost up to $100,000.

That, plus student loans and the extra flying time needed after college, make for a lot of barriers. It’s especially tough when most beginning regional airline pilots only make around 20,000 dollars a year.

Eventually those pilots will end making more, but that’ll be in ten years or so. The airlines’ challenge is to convince students to stay with commercial aviation instead of heading over to corporate.

To do it, they're heading to places like the flight simulator lab at Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation. Housed inside Western Michigan’s flight hangar in Battle Creek, a giant projection screen wraps around a makeshift cockpit, with a student in the pilot seat. It’s advanced stuff that only a few schools have.

Steve Jones, the college’s executive director of flight operations, says it’s training like this that’s bringing airlines straight to the school.

"The carriers are now coming to us," Jones says. "They’re saying we’d like to talk to your students, to your instructors, about coming to work for us. It’s been a bit of the reversal in the emphasis."

But Jones says the new tactics aren’t simply about reaching out to students. The airlines are bringing along incentives, like signing bonuses for students who stay with the airline for at least a few years.

It’s the way of airlines saying, We may not be able to pay you much right away. But we can give you a little bit now to make things easier.

"Endeavor Air, for example, just announced three or four weeks ago for the next three or four years they’re giving a retention bonus to every pilot at Endeavor of $20,000 per year, for four years," Jones says. "And will, I’m sure, attract folks who would like to ease the financial burden once they graduate and have to start paying back student loans and have to work for a regional carrier."

But even that may not be enough. According to a 2013 study from the University of North Dakota, 35,000 pilots will be needed over the next fifteen years. Jones and other experts say carriers need to start reaching out even earlier.

"The decision has to be made that early in order to get the right courses under your belt and get the right preparation for university not only for the pilot licenses, but the degrees," Jones explains.

Doing that may require airlines to offer scholarships to students at high schools such as the West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids. The school isn’t only for prospective pilots. But it specializes in science and math. And it lets students who know they want to be pilots actually fly planes. Students like Tyler Herndon.

"I used to come to the airport and just watch the airplanes take off. And that was so amazing to me," Herndon says. "There’s nothing normal about aviation. People talk about getting into the grind of life but with aviation, there’s nothing that’s ever the same ever."

The academy hasn’t been approached by any airlines yet. But for Herndon, the scholarship route has already worked. Just last week, Herndon found out he received a brand-new $100,000 scholarship to Western Michigan University’s aviation program. Those kinds of scholarships aren’t common just yet, but if carriers create them, Herndon’s path could be a solution for how airlines can save themselves.

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