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Media Mentions

Regional Carriers May Bear Brunt Of Pilot Shortage

December 3, 2021

Last year’s brief pilot surplus has become a deficit, and regional carriers may be most at risk.

When the COVID-19 pandemic cratered demand for air travel in Spring 2020, the airline industry suddenly found itself with an excess of pilots. But demand returned faster than expected, and after thousands of early retirements, carriers once again face the prospect of a looming pilot shortage.

In addition to the recent retirements, around 40% of U.S.-based airline pilots are expected to retire over the next decade, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson. Furthermore, he said that some pilots may choose to retire early as employer vaccine mandates take effect. All told, Ferguson forecasts nearly 63,000 pilot retirements at mainline airlines between 2021 and 2032.

Ferguson told Aviation Daily that the seniority system at mainline carriers will lead to regionals getting gutted for qualified pilots.

“The regionals are typically the training ground for the majors, and frankly, I think the majors have to consider if they’re going to gut them for pilots, they end up raiding the chest of the regionals, and it hurts their own route planning and their ability to serve small markets,” Ferguson said.

Large legacy carriers will probably have little problem filling the cockpit because they offer the most attractive salaries in the industry. As such, they can attract talent from smaller airlines and budget carriers, who, in turn, can recruit from regional carriers that offer the lowest wages in the industry.

“If you’re United, American, Delta or Southwest, you don’t really have to worry about finding pilots, because everybody ultimately wants to work for the largest carriers and make the most money,” explained Jerry Glass, a consultant with F&H Solutions Group who specializes in aviation labor issues. 

“The concern is that there are so many pilots retiring over the next five or 10 years. Will there be enough pilots to handle the demand and the replacement of those who are retiring? I think the answer will be that the regionals will struggle to find pilots, but the bigger guys won’t.”

Regional Airline Association (RAA) CEO Faye Malarkey Black told Aviation Daily that the pilot shortage is an industry-wide problem that is not exclusive to regional aviation. Still, she acknowledged the “acute” crisis facing RAA member carriers, which she said will “worsen exponentially without intervention.”

Black highlighted several workforce investments regional airlines are making to bolster their pilot pipeline. Examples include subsidizing future pilots’ education and training; innovative compensation strategies; and creating flow and other career support programs. Still, she insists those efforts are not sufficient to address what she characterizes as a “public policy problem.”

According to Black, the single biggest obstacle to pilot recruitment efforts is the high cost of achieving a commercial pilot license and the insufficient amount of student loans available to prospective flyers. She said the RAA is backing legislation that would right-size student loan caps to meet the cost of a flight education degree, so that aspiring pilots from diverse backgrounds can access the career. 

“Not only will this increase the supply of pilots as is desperately needed, it will make the pilot training pipeline more equitable and inclusive,” Black said. “When everyone is feeling great alarm at the shortage, there is insufficient focus on real solutions that involve removing barriers of entry to the career.”