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Wanted: a few good pilots.
Facing headwinds in its efforts to recruit new pilots, Piedmont Airlines, the Salisbury-based American Airlines subsidiary, is making an ascent with its incentives for prospective employees.
The regional airline carrier has announced it is now offering a $15,000 signing bonus to new pilots and $5,000 to any employee who refers a pilot prospect who is ultimately hired.
"The pilot supply has been somewhat constrained as of late the past couple of years, and it’s kind of reverberating through the regional airline sector," said Lyle Hogg, Piedmont's president and CEO. “We’ve kind of gotten through the surplus pilots over the last couple years, so now we’re starting to feel the pinch.”
Such deal-sweeteners are little more than a temporary fix because they don't get to the root of the problem, said Capt. Paul Ryder, the resource coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association and a pilot himself.
“The bonuses are short-lived and it’s not sustainable going forward in terms of recruitment and retention," Ryder said.
Carriers that put forward better compensation packages, career-advancement opportunities and a comfortable work-life package aren't experiencing any shortages, he added.
And then there's the dispute over whether a shortage exists at all.
"We are staying away from the pilot shortage issue because we don't have any data to support whether there is a shortage or not," said Ed Smith, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and one of the top airline industry researchers. "What is badly needed is a pilot supply study but nobody has been willing to fund it."
What is known: Regional airlines, such as Piedmont, say they have been facing a dearth of applicants in recent years.
Two regional operators, Republic Airways and SeaPort Airlines, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Both cited a shortage of pilots.
The industry attributes the lack of new pilots in the pipeline to regulations passed in the wake of 2010 legislation that significantly increased the amount of training that new pilots need. Now, first officers, also known as co-pilots, need 1,500 hours of flight time instead of 250.
A four-year degree can cost around $130,000. For a job that pays as little as $20,000 in the first year, the expense and years of training just aren't worth it, critics say.
Pay is not the problem, Hogg contended. With the bonus, the first-year pay jumps to nearly $50,000, he said. The company also offers a tuition-reimbursement package.
As he sees it, smaller airlines are facing an issue 15 years in the making.
"It’s really an industry-perception issue that really goes back to 9/11. It’s starting to turn around. But it’s really up to encouraging these young pilots to get a four-year college and start accumulating enough hours," Hogg said.
The employment struggle comes as Piedmont, one of 10 regionals that fly under the American Eagle banner, seeks to hire 200 more pilots by the end of the year.
It also is expanding its fleet, adding 20 Embraer 145 jets to its stock of 37 turboprops. The company expects to receive its seventh jet within a couple weeks. None fly out of Salisbury itself, but that could change in the coming years as the turboprops age, Hogg said.
“The aircraft we have today are life-limited. We can fly them for 80,000 cycles. Some of them are in the high 20s — 27, 28 years old, so they’re starting to approach their 80,000 cycles," he said.
Pilot staffing dictates how many aircraft can take to the air. The shortage isn't affecting air travelers yet, he said, “but it’s getting to the point we could see some issues down the road.”
If regional airlines are affected, larger carriers likely won't be far behind because they hire many of their pilots from their smaller cousins, Hogg said.
Original article can be found here: http://www.delmarvanow.com