Who will fly the planes? Regional airline CEO warns of pilot shortage

Dion Flannery is used to blank looks when he talks about the airline he runs. PSA Airlines is not a name-brand carrier most people recognize.

But the regional carrier, a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines, is a key player in the airline industry, operating hundreds of flights a day at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it flies under the American Eagle name.

As regional airlines become increasingly important to U.S. air travel, however, they are facing a major problem: finding people to fly their planes.

A looming pilot shortage was one of the main concerns on Flannery’s mind this week at a regional airline executives conference held in Charlotte.

“It’s reaching a crescendo,” Flannery said Wednesday in an interview with the Observer. “The problem is pervasive today, and there are no easy answers.”

In February, regional carrier Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy, citing difficulty finding pilots and the resulting grounding of planes as factors in its financial troubles.

Regional airlines aren’t generally household names like Delta, American, United and Southwest – PSA, Mesa, SkyWest, anyone? – but they operate about 45 percent of commercial passenger flights in the U.S. They typically fly under contract with the major carriers, operating smaller planes with flight names such as Delta Connection or United Express.

At Charlotte Douglas, regional carriers flying for American account for 56 percent of the airline’s daily departures: 370 out of 650 flights a day.

PSA operates 260 flights a day at Charlotte for American, and also has 1,100 employees based here. It’s one of 10 regional carriers American uses to fly smaller jets, connecting passengers in small markets with bigger planes in hub cities such as Charlotte.

Regulators tightened training requirements for new pilots in the wake of a 2009 accident. A Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air crashed on approach to Buffalo, killing 50 people. In response to questions raised about the crew’s experience and response, the federal government increased the number of required flight hours for new commercial pilots.

That has increased the cost and time it takes for new pilots to get hired. And while the cost of becoming a pilot, including required flight hours and training, is well north of $100,000, starting first officers at regional airlines typically make salaries in the $20,000s, with the hope of one day moving up to more lucrative assignments at the major carriers.

Flannery acknowledged going to flight school and completing all required training is “an enormously expensive endeavor.” He said PSA is increasing pay and adding signing bonuses to entice pilots. The company announced this month that it’s awarding a one-time $20,000 retention bonus to all of its first officers, as well as providing a $250 monthly stipend that they can use to offset the expense of staying in hotels while commuting.

The airline has also started a “cadet” program to get aviation students early in their training, offering tuition reimbursement and a path to a job while they’re still in school. PSA plans to hire 500 pilots per year in the coming years.

Flannery said regulators should look at training approaches that focus on the quality of flight hours rather than simply requiring all prospective first officers to reach 1,500 hours. “It’s taking longer to train people,” he said.

He acknowledged that low starting salaries are an issue, but he said PSA encourages prospective pilots to think of their career in terms of more than the first year. Given the airline’s growth and connection to American, new first officers can get promoted and move up to American in a decade or less.

“There’s never been, at least in my view, a better time to be a commercial pilot,” Flannery said. “We try to condition people to look at it over a three- to five-year time frame.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo