The United States, and perhaps even the whole world, finds itself in the midst of a pilot shortage. This is not debatable; this is fact.
You may choose to debate whether it’s a pilot pay shortage, or just a lack of qualified individuals. The bottom line though is that airlines are having trouble filling pilot seats on their jets.
Desperate airlines have attempted a variety of recruiting and retention efforts, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The most poorly-managed airlines have attempted to use sticks, rather than carrots, in those efforts. As reported by Aero Crew News, the most recent airline to try a real screw-job is Republic Airways. They’ve decided that any pilot leaving the company having served fewer than two years as a Captain will be forced to repay any bonuses and pay $100,000 in damages.
Let’s be clear: this is morally wrong. It’s the worst human resources policy in our industry in recent memory. The geniuses who thought this up should get immediate performance reviews.
I suspect the Teamsters will find it relatively easy to fight this policy, and that it will go away quickly.
It doesn’t matter whether they succeed though. If you are a young pilot thinking about applying to a regional airline, you should avoid Republic Airways at all costs!
Even if this policy gets revoked, the fact that this company’s management was clueless enough to publish it in the first place should tell you everything you need to know about what it’s like to work there.
I think Republic will suffer a lot more than it already has from this policy. Remember that they’re the company who went bankrupt in 2016 specifically because they couldn’t staff their airline. It appears that they had no idea how to attract or retain talent back then, and they haven’t learned even after screwing over their shareholders and creditors. I’ll be surprised if this company continues to exist in the long term.
The Rock and the Hard Place
To the managers at all the other regional airlines: we all understand your position. You work at the mercy of bigger airlines. They compete you against each other and lock you into the least lucrative contracts possible. You have to honor those contracts flying the least efficient jets in the industry.
Your pilots have gotten nearly as expensive as their mainline counterparts. You have a terrible time retaining them. God’s honest truth is that any pilot who is qualified to work for you is qualified to work for better pay, flying better jets, under better work rules at a ULCC…if not a major like American, Delta, or United.
You’d probably love to hire some shiny, new, inexperienced pilots, but despite ALPA’s insistence, there aren’t enough of them to go around. (Part of the problem is that ALPA is counting a lot of pilots who have no intention of ever becoming airline pilots, but I digress….)
To have any hope of continuing to exist as a corporation, you must staff your aircraft and cover your flights. It will take incredible creativity and leadership (as opposed to management or administration, my esteemed MBAs) to achieve your objectives.
What follows are some suggestions on key points.
I don’t care if you like what I have to say or not. I’m just a random line pilot typing shit into a computer. My family has adequately filled our Treasure Bath and don’t even depend on my airline’s wholly-owned regionals for our subsistence. If you choose to give my thoughts consideration and try my suggestions, I think you have a chance of succeeding in this environment. If not, well, good luck.
What Are Our Assets?
When the Dread Pirate Roberts awoke from his mostly-death experience facing an enemy force twenty times the size of his own, this was one of his first questions. You should be asking yourselves the same thing.
However, before you get to assets, you should ask yourselves, “What are our weaknesses?”
You have two big ones, and they’re titanic:
- Your Scope sucks
- You have the worst work rules (and therefore pilot Quality of Life) in the industry
These facts are so important that I recently published a novella encouraging all pilots to completely avoid your section of the industry if at all possible.
You can try to ignore these facts, but if you do you will fail.
So, what might you be able to count as assets? Here are a few things:
- You can (and do) hire the least experienced pilots in the industry
- Your relationships with major airlines present exclusive opportunities for flow-through programs
- Your companies have always been short-stay locations for many pilots, and you’ve always been structured to deal with that as best you can.
And I’m spent. Sorry. If only we had a holocaust cloak….
The only solutions to your problems will have to address your weaknesses and capitalize (effectively) on your assets.
Some of this should be easy. Your line pilots and their unions are probably suggesting everything I’m about to say and more. If you’d bother to listen, they’d essentially solve your problems for you.
Since your Scope sucks, you need to go out of your way to meet as many of your pilots’ needs as possible. On this front, realize that they:
- Need as many total flight hours as possible, as soon as possible
- Need to put feed their families
Part of fixing this is getting your pilots their hours. I know, it’s tough to do this flying EMB145s or CRJ200s. A friend of mine used to complain that he’d work a 12 or 14 hour day flying 6 legs on the CRJ200, but he’d only log 2.5 hours because the legs were so short.
Sorry, but no pilot feels compelled to stick it out in that situation when they can go to Frontier and fly legs 2-3 times as long on a jet with 500% more flight deck floor space and a tray table. This means you need to tailor your trip mix to share the love on long legs. It also means you need to be lobbying your major airline masters, hard, to abandon inefficient 50-seat jets and at least fly the CRJ900 or EMB175.
I think you’ve largely figured out putting food on tables. Regional airline pay rates have skyrocketed lately. Until Delta’s recent contract, it was the Line Check Airmen at American’s wholly-owned subsidiaries who enjoyed the highest pay rates in the industry.
Your pay is fair. If it’s proving insufficient to attract and retain pilots, that means you’ve only just caught up to the industry standard on pay and now you’re lacking in other areas.
This goes back to your second major weakness: you treat your pilots terribly.
I’m a B737 Captain in NYC, which means I fly with new-hire FOs coming from every other airline in the industry. I love hearing about life at their past airlines, but I am constantly shocked at some of your policies. Your reserve rules are brutal. Your trip construction is overwhelming. Your scheduling practices are shady. Your commuter policies, if they exist at all, are insufficient. I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve been ignoring similar feedback for years.
I don’t care if you agree with me. I don’t care if you think I’m uninformed. Either you fix this, or you will go the way of the Republic.
You need to give your pilots enough days off to have a real life outside work. If they want to volunteer to do extra flying to get hours sooner, fine. However, if you’re at all forcing or cajoling that volunteerism, you will fail.
You need to give your pilots the ability to do the right thing. Give them schedules, reserve rules, and commuting policies that recognize reality.
You change your pilots’ bases so capriciously that they will not choose to move to a base just because you assigned them there. Make it easier for them to get to work, and give them policies that keep them whole when their honest and reasonable efforts to get to work fail.
These are just some simple basics. These are table stakes. If you want to succeed, you’ll have to start from here and think of even more ways to mitigate your weaknesses.
Yes, this will cost you money. Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy are paying LCAs $427/hr. You can afford to splurge a little on work rules.
Now that we’ve covered the table stakes for addressing your weaknesses, let’s consider some opportunities for a creative airline to gain an edge on recruitment and retention.
Since you are capable of hiring, training, and employing the least experienced pilots in the industry, you should be out spreading that message with those pilots! You need to be at every industry conference, you need to be hosting get-togethers at aviation training hotspots and in major cities, you need to be buying chances to write sponsored content in trade publications, you need to on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram showing how you take care of young pilots.
Many of you are doing this already. Good job; keep it up. However, the trick here is not to be like all the worthless influencers on social media these days who try to look cool, but don’t have any substance.
I can’t stand all the fitness gurus, home improvement “experts,” investing “pros,” “models,” etc. who try to pass themselves off as experts, yet provide nothing of actual value. (Hell, some schmuck airline pilots even have the temerity to blog about big-picture industry issues. I hope those chumps have some experience to back up what they’re saying!)
If you’re going to assert that you’re a great place for young pilots on social media, you need to make it true. Table stakes are mitigating your weaknesses, like we mentioned above.
Another part of this is not implementing policies that screw your people over. Republic’s most recent catastrophe is the perfect example. Another is Endeavor. Since Delta (wisely) relies on their wholly-owned regional to fill up larger jets at their hubs, they’ve made efforts to keep pilots at Endeavor for as long as possible…in fact they’ve tried too hard.
Though nobody will admit as much, it’s apparent that Delta is punishing any pilot who attempts to circumvent Endeavor’s flow agreement by applying directly to Delta or by going to another airline and applying for Delta from there. This is a terrible policy, and because of it I encourage pilots who want to fly for Delta to avoid Endeavor like the plague.
This is enough of a problem throughout our industry that I wrote a separate diatribe just on this topic. Only a great fool would go on social media purporting to be a good place for young pilots while implementing this type of policy.
Instead, you should have the world’s best mentoring program for new pilots. You should go beyond just basic airline career coaching and hire financial advisors, come up with job placement programs for spouses, and set up deals for affordable child care with credible providers, at least near your pilot domiciles.
You also need to put the right pilots into your training department. Some of you have a reputation for being too tough, and I promise you’re suffering for it. You can accept a reputation as, “tough, but fair,” but you need to publicize how you go out of your way to give every pilot a great shot at succeeding.
Like it or not, you also need to celebrate when your good pilots move on to bigger and better things.
We’ll get to how you can make these strategies win/win in a moment.
Before we go there, you also need to figure out how to make your flow-through programs non-punitive. If your program looks like a trap, pilots will assume that’s the case. You need more carrots here than sticks.
Part of that means getting better assurance of progression to your major airline partner. As I understand it, when a pilot interviews at Horizon, they are also interviewing at Alaska. There is no second interview. There is no “maybe.” Once a pilot has checked a clearly-defined set of boxes at Horizon, they move on to Alaska in one of the next two or three classes. Period, dot.
That’s the bare minimum industry standard for a half-decent flow through program.
If that’s not how yours looks, fix it. Does your major airline master dislike this fact? Ask them whether they want you to be able to staff yourself to cover their schedule or not. It’s that simple.
Much to my chagrin, it appears that neither airline managers nor union bosses get sufficient training in logic or psychology. This is most evident in their inability to successfully win the Prisoner’s Dilemma in their pilot retention efforts.
Both sides act as though their only hope of success is screwing the other side over as hard and as often as possible. As a union member, I tend to believe that the management side has more than earned its distrust. However, labor relations at some companies have become so toxic that it’s too much for me to stomach.
Both sides in these battles must admit that there are mutually-beneficial solutions to all of these problems.
Airline managers should realize that their unions have probably been trying to explain these solutions for ages.
Union bosses need to get over the stigma of being in the company’s pocket and realize that it’s okay to work with the company for mutual-benefit.
Both sides need to sit down and work together in good faith to find ways forward. If I were king for a day I’d have the two groups sit together around a campfire with coolers full of chilled beverages and a table full of pizza nearby. Each side would spend as much time as necessary explaining what they think the other side’s pain points are.
There’d be no discussion, debate, or problem solving until both sides had said their piece.
If they accomplished that simple exercise, they’d realize they already understand each other, have some common ground, and that they both dislike some of the same things.
From there, a group of mature adults should be able to start figuring out ways to ensure reliability and flexibility for the company, while protecting pilot pay and QOL.
If I didn’t like my situation at my current airline so much, I’d think about branching out and starting my own airline based on this philosophy. I’m confident that I could come up with a more efficient and reliable system while attracting and retaining pilots that would be so happy we’d cause huge problems for the rest of the industry.
I honestly hope someone else gives this a try. If you do, you’ll be the one that all the other CEOs and union leaders envy.
Or you could just be the next company to “pull a Republic.”
(Nope, it’s not too soon. They made that phrase part of our industry’s lexicon all in one day!)
Like it or not, these are only stopgap measures. Regional airlines should never have existed in the first place.
These atrocities only came into being in the wake of crooks like Frank Lorenzo who raped and pillaged our industry by ruining good companies and the lives of the families who built them.
They demonstrated that some pilots could be desperate enough to work for less pay and under bad contracts based on the promise of something better down the line. That, combined with the introduction of smaller passenger jets that never lived up to their promises, prompted major airline execs to form regional airlines. These shitty shadows of their major airline masters were places where execs could bank losses, pay pilots peanuts, and treat both customers and employees like garbage.
I say again: Regional airlines should never have existed in the first place.
That knowledge presents the obvious solution: get rid of regional airlines.
There is truly no point to a wholly-owned regional today. Regional pilot pay rates offer no savings. You’re forced to duplicate your corporate structure, including very highly-paid management and executive positions. Worst of all, you’re operating the least efficient jets in the industry.
I flew the A220 for a couple years, and it is a masterpiece! It should replace every regional jet owned by a major airline. The A220 has roughly the same hourly fuel burn as a CRJ900 or EMB175, yet it carries 30-50 more passengers!
Not only that, the A220 has the best narrowbody cabin in the industry. It has real overhead bins and real cargo bins. It can efficiently cover regional jet routes, but it’s also capable of flying a US transcon with an alternate. Bombardier even flew one from London City Airport to NYC, westbound, in the winter!
As much as I love the A220, it appears that the A321neo and B737MAX are even more efficient. While I’d rather see more A220s in the skies, you can probably increase your profits and pax ex by using some flavor of re-engined Airbus or Boeing product to replace your 76-seat regional jets in many of your markets.
No matter what aircraft you choose, there is no excuse for you to be operating worse, less efficient aircraft at wholly-owned subsidiaries. Even if you hated your pilots, you have a fiduciary duty to your shareholders to make the right decision here.
Will there always be a need for the smallest jets in the industry to serve the smallest markets? Yes.
That’s what independent companies like SkyWest are for. Hire them to provide feed between your smallest markets and your hubs. Let them specialize in that. If they want to waste money, they can do it in 50-seat jets. Or, they can fly 76 seaters on those routes while you fly 110-130 seat A220s on routes that your wholly-owned 76-seat jets used to fly.
If you want, you’re welcome to keep some of your 76 seaters as mainline aircraft.
I’ll probably commute for my entire career. If I had the option of driving to work to fly a mainline EMB175, I would absolutely consider volunteering. You’d probably find a lot of pilots like me. You wouldn’t need them though, because all those pilots from your wholly-owned regional would now be available to fly those jets as mainline pilots.
That is the ultimate answer to designing a better flow-through program and not trapping pilots in it. Don’t make it a flow-through. Make all your pilots mainline. The junior ones will get stuck flying junior jets at junior bases. You’ll have a better spread of experienced pilots to fly with them. You’ll eliminate your expensive and wasteful redundant corporate structures. You’ll give your passengers a better and more consistent experience.
This is not a win/lose strategy. This provides wins for everyone.
The first airline to figure this out will change our industry (for the better) forever. They’ll also get a huge lead on pilot attraction and retention. I hope it’s mine, but if not, I hope it’s yours.
This is Part 1 in a series that will address pilot retention at various levels in our industry. As it turns out, the stakeholders at all of those levels have good options for winning, if they’re willing to exercise some conscious thought and try something new. We’ll tie everything up by showing how working together across existing divisions would take win/win philosophy to a whole new level for everyone.
Up next is Part 2: Bigger Airlines
Credit: feature image originally posted to Flickr as Republic Airlines, via Wikipedia.