Saturday, August 17, 2013

Great Lakes Airlines faces shortage of pilots

CHEYENNE — A new law upping the number of hours a   person has to fly before they  can be hired as an airline pilot is causing headaches for Great Lakes Airlines.

A spokeswoman for the Cheyenne-based regional airline said the new law, which went into effect Aug. 1, has made it harder for Great Lakes and other regional airlines to hire and retain pilots. Great Lakes services four Wyoming communities: Cheyenne, Riverton, Sheridan and Worland.

Passed in 2010, the Airline Safety and
Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act calls for increased minimum requirements for airline first officers, who used to only need 250 flight hours to be hired. The law was passed in response to a 2009 plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.

Speaking to the Cheyenne Regional Airport Board on Wednesday morning, Great Lakes spokeswoman Monica Taylor-Lee said the law has forced the airline to drop 30 pilots who hadn’t yet accumulated enough flight time.

“We did start planning in  advance and only would hire guys we thought would definitely have the 1,500 hours by Aug. 1,” Taylor-Lee said. “Unfortunately, they were somewhere between 1,450 and 1,499, and July 31 didn’t matter. If they were one hour short, they could no longer fly for Great Lakes, even though they’d been doing it for a year.”

Most of those are now attempting to hit 1,500 hours on their own so they can be hired back on, and a few already have been. But as of Wednesday, Great Lakes was still 15 pilots short and is now seeing higher-than-normal attrition as larger airlines attempt to meet the same requirements.

“All the majors are trying to grab all the guys that have at least 1,500 hours, and they always pick out of the pot of Great Lakes because we have a great training program,” Taylor-Lee said. “So we are experiencing a pretty severe pilot shortage at the moment.”

If the shortage persists, Taylor-Lee said the effect of the new law could result in pre-cancellations and other issues should a pilot call in sick, for example.

“We don’t have an extra pool of pilots for sick calls or delays if they get stuck in Los Angeles due to weather and they’re supposed to finish the flight from Denver to Cheyenne,” she said. “So our operations have been pretty affected for the last couple of weeks.”

Taylor-Lee said another 10 pilots are expected to come back within the next week, which could offset some of the recent attrition. But if that trend continues, it could still pose problems for the airline.

“We’re hoping that the majors will increase their requirements for number of hours … and (stop) taking all the 1,500-hour guys off the street, which are the guys we need now too,” she said.

She added that Great Lakes’ Minneapolis hub is attempting to add “Part 135” operations, which involve planes with no more than nine passenger seats.

Under the new law, Part 135 operations aren’t subject to the 1,500-hour requirement for co-pilots. But so far, Taylor-Lee said, the FAA has been unwilling to allow Great Lakes to simply cordon off seats on its aircraft to fulfill the nine-seat requirement for Part 135.

“They’ve told us we have to actually (physically) remove those seats, which would really hamper our ability to get our airplanes from Minneapolis to our Denver hub,” she said.

Great Lakes is the largest regional carrier in the Essential Air Service program, a federal program that provides small towns across the country with connections to a regional hub airport. In other words, a large portion of Great Lakes’ flights are to and from small towns — otherwise money losing routes that other larger airlines refuse to serve.

Great Lakes isn’t the only regional airline concerned by the new flight-time requirement for pilots. Kelly Murphy, the communications manager for the Regional Airline Association, said regional airlines across the country have cause for concern.

“It used to be when you graduated from a structured aviation program, those kids came out of college with about 300, 400 maybe 500 hours,” Murphy said. “And the concern is now, of course, going through those schools, you have a lot of student loans, and now that you need a minimum of 1,500 hours to get hired with an airline, it’s going to take a while to accrue those hours.”

Some graduates are building those hours by becoming instructors themselves, while others are seeking flight work in industries like agriculture. But Murphy said the 1,500-hour requirement has presented a major roadblock to breaking into the airline industry, which is already anticipated to face significant pilot shortages in the next few decades.

She pointed to one study conducted by the University of North Dakota that predicted a deficit of more than 35,000 airline pilots by 2031, based on the anticipated rates of retirements and new hires.

Murphy noted that the career progression of airline pilots isn’t unlike that of doctors or lawyers. All three fields require a large upfront investment in both time and money, which can pay huge dividends if they stay with the job, with some senior airline captains pulling in more than $200,000 a year.

But with miniscule starting salaries and rising educational costs now being combined with even more onerous job qualifications, Murphy said it’s going to take a concerted effort to convince the next generation of pilots to come aboard.

“There will be a rising need for pilots in the very near future, and for aviation, in particular, it’s a long-term career,” she said. “That’s why we’re focusing on the fact that, as an industry, we need to be talking about the benefits and the great career incentives of being a pilot.”

And even if the major airlines are able to weather the effects of the new law, Murphy said that still doesn’t account for the important role regional airlines like Great Lakes play in the grand scheme of things.

“We actually account  for 50 percent of the air service across America today,” she said. “Half of the commercial services are from regional airlines, so it’s  very important.”