US pilot shortage set to ‘isolate small communities’

The US airline pilot shortage is not exactly breaking news, it’s a problem that has been developing as a result of the post-pandemic resurgence in air travel, but it continues to worsen.

The shortage hits the regional and small commuter airlines hardest, because the national carriers poach their captains and copilots, especially those with experience. They have always done this, but the situation for the regionals is particularly dire right now.

In a statement in its just-published end-of-year report, the US Regional Airlines Association’s CEO Faye Malarkey Black, has warned: “If policymakers fail to do their job, and do not give the pilot shortage the urgent attention it warrants, small community air service will be a thing of the past, and air travel will soon be a privilege reserved for those residing in our urban centres.” 

The report reveals that about 500 regional aircraft types are grounded across the country for lack of pilots to fly them. In November the RAA had estimated that the US airline industry had a shortage of about 8,000 pilots overall. Some of the larger regionals like Piedmont and PSA have been offering tempting joining bonuses, but these and the need to boost pay to retain pilots is becoming another factor in making marginal regional operations un-viable.

Voicing a familiar theme, Malarkey Black highlights the sky-high cost of training for professional pilots, and calls for legislation focused on “equitable access to aviation careers”, adding that the government “should be moving heaven and earth to make it easier for aspiring pilots from all backgrounds to access affordable, high-quality training”. Black urges: “We need to bring forward legislation to allow the next generation of pilots and mechanics to obtain student loans and grants.”

America is not the only part of the world where post-pandemic pilot shortages exist, but it does have a unique rule that makes it impossible for licensed pilots to enter the airline industry immediately following training, even if the training was airline-specific. This rule makes the pilot shortage – particularly for the commuter carriers where many rookie copilots would normally begin their professional careers – far worse.

This rule, requiring that pilots must have 1,500h in their log book before they can fly for commercial airlines, was the result of a kneejerk political reaction to a fatal commuter crash in February 2009 near Buffalo, in upstate New York. A Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 stalled during the night-time descent toward Buffalo airport, the crew lost control, and all 49 people on board were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s main verdict was that the crew had not monitored the airspeed and had failed to lower the nose to un-stall the wings when the stickshaker activated. There were many other circumstances that were arguably contributory factors, including crew fatigue and the matter of crew training performance records, but federal politicians saw fit to attribute the whole thing to a lack of flying hours, so they mandated the 1,500h rule.

Thus, in America, a pilot with a full commercial license at the end of training – which normally means he or she has about 400 hours in their log book – cannot fly as copilot for an airline even if the carrier thinks they are good enough. They have to become flying instructors, obtain any kind of general aviation job, or fly single-pilot Cessna Caravan freighters for a small package delivery company until they have notched up 1,500h.

Many in the industry believe the 1,500h rule was never appropriate, but even more so now when modern pilot training programs take advantage of today’s much smarter flight simulation training devices to render a newly-trained pilot ready for the right hand seat in a commercial airliner. Change, however, does not look likely.