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The Future of our industry

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As airlines rush to add regional jets, one important question remains: Who will fly them?

Vance Hopkins used to fly jets out of the Twin Cities for Pinnacle Airlines. He walked away from that job earlier this year to become a truck driver.
By Liz Fedor, Star Tribune
Last update: July 28, 2007 – 4:22 PM
Vance Hopkins used to fly jets out of the Twin Cities for Pinnacle Airlines. He walked away from that job earlier this year to become a truck driver.
"I wasn't getting enough time at home," said the 45-year-old Hopkins man, who typically spent just eight or nine days a month with his wife and three children when he was a pilot.
"They were the ones that were making the big sacrifices," Hopkins said, adding that he now returns home every night after working as a short-haul truck driver in Northern California.
The job of a commercial airline pilot, once considered exciting and lucrative, has undergone a negative makeover complete with lesser pay, longer hours and plenty of time spent on the road. The industry changes are especially severe for pilots who work for regional airlines, where the pay for first officers sometimes doesn't top that of a fast-food shift manager.
Many airline industry insiders say the United States is now struggling with a pilot shortage because airlines have created a harsher lifestyle for pilots. Some pilots are leaving the profession to pursue other careers, and some students intrigued by aviation are choosing other occupations and bypassing pilot training.
The Federal Aviation Administration has projected that the number of passengers on U.S. commercial airlines will increase from 698 million in 2000 to 878 million in 2011 -- a 26 percent jump.
Meanwhile, the number of pilots holding airline transport certificates -- the license needed at major airlines -- is expected to remain virtually flat. In 2000, 141,598 people held that license, and the FAA expects a slight climb to 142,489 in 2011. The number of pilots with commercial licenses -- required at regional airlines -- is expected to decline by about 7,000.
For travelers, pilot shortages mean more flight cancellations. Pinnacle Airlines, for example, which operates regional flights for Northwest Airlines, disclosed in May that it expects to pay a $1.1 million penalty to Northwest because it didn't have enough pilots to fly the full schedule earlier this year.
The shortage also means there's a good chance that a newly hired co-pilot on your regional flight has less flying experience than newly hired pilots of just a year or two ago.
"You can teach somebody to fly relatively quickly. You cannot teach judgment quickly," said Tom Wychor, chairman of the Mesaba Airlines pilots union. "Judgment takes time and experience to learn."
Brian Addis, who operated the Wings flight school in St. Paul for three decades, said a pilot's career is "not the way it used to be." People training to become commercial pilots now need to know that they "will be gone more and work harder for less money."
Many have already gotten that message and decided a pilot's license isn't worth the time and expense.
For many years, Addis said his school typically had an enrollment of 150. But he closed shop in March after the number dropped to 10.
John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) International, said the pilot shortage has its roots in 9/11, because major airlines slashed thousands of pilot jobs following the drop in passenger demand that resulted from the terrorist attacks. Many of the remaining pilots saw their pay reduced as the airlines struggled financially. Several carriers entered bankruptcy. Some airlines, including United, terminated pension plans.
Now, there aren't enough new pilots "entering into the pipeline because the [labor] contracts were broken in bankruptcy court," said Mesaba's Wychor. He argued that bankruptcy judges gave airline executives "carte blanche" to extract excessive concessions. In the Northwest bankruptcy case, pilots took a 23.9 percent pay cut in 2006, which was on top of a 15 percent cut in late 2004.
Gearing up to hire
After hiring 4,779 pilots in 2000, the nation's major carriers hired just 549 in 2002.
The tables since have turned and big network carriers and regional airlines are seeking to hire thousands of pilots. Both Northwest and United airlines have recalled the last of their furloughed pilots and are hiring pilots for the first time since 2001.
Northwest said last week that it intends to hire about 300 pilots over the next 12 months; on the first day it accepted applications on its website, it received 250.
But Northwest is drawing pilots from the regionals at the same time that it is hoping to rely on the regionals more than ever to handle big parts of its flight schedule. Northwest is expanding regional flying by an annual average of 16.9 percent between now and 2010.
Northwest has allocated three dozen new 76-seat Canadair Regional Jets (CRJs) to Mesaba as well as 16 smaller CRJs that seat 50 passengers. That increased flying means that Mesaba expects to hire 695 pilots. The airline said Thursday that it has hired 285 pilots so far, and has received 1,400 applications.
Compass, a new subsidiary created while Northwest was in bankruptcy, intends to hire 350 pilots to fly 36 new Embraer jets that seat 76 passengers. Compass has hired 80 pilots and started to take delivery of the new planes.
Pinnacle, Northwest's third regional partner, employs about 1,250 pilots and has seen 168 resign this year. Phil Reed, Pinnacle's vice president of marketing, said that Pinnacle has made 254 new hires this year and kept a "large pool of well-trained, experienced pilots."
But Scott Erickson, chairman of the Pinnacle pilots union, said many first officers at Pinnacle have made lateral moves and taken jobs at other regional airlines. A beginning first officer at Pinnacle earns between $24,000 and $25,000 total for flying more than 900 hours a year. (The FAA maximum for flying is 1,000 hours a year.)
Pinnacle pilots, represented by ALPA, have been in negotiations since July 2004.
"The terms and pay rates of our 1999 contract have languished behind the industry," Erickson said. "Naturally, substandard pay, benefits and work rules have been a major impediment to pilot recruiting and pilot retention in such a tight hiring market."
Minimums being minimized
Kit Darby, who recently retired from flying for United, has run a business for several years that helps pilots get jobs.
Through his company, Atlanta-based Air Inc., he distributes detailed information to pilots about hiring opportunities and job qualifications.
Many regional carriers used to require that new hires have 1,000 hours of total flight time, but Darby said those "minimums" have been dropping rapidly.
"When [airlines] are changing their minimums to get more people, then there is at least a shortage of what they previously were looking for," Darby said.
Mesaba lists 600 total hours of flying as "minimum preferred hours" for new hire pilots, but Darby said a Mesaba representative told him that exceptions would be made to that floor based on the chief pilot's approval.
Pinnacle cites 1,000 hours of flying time as a "preferred minimum," but since June Pinnacle management has been offering to pay employees a $1,000 "referral bonus" for each pilot they find who has 600 to 1,000 hours of experience.
Kent Lovelace, chairman of the Aviation Department at the University of North Dakota, said he believes the United States is experiencing a pilot shortage. He said that at one time pilots needed 1,500 total flying hours to get hired at regional carriers. Now, regional carriers are traveling to Grand Forks to hire UND graduates who normally would spend a few years building up their flight time as instructors.
"We've had three airlines here in the last week hiring," Lovelace said, including Mesaba.
Darby said some regionals are hiring people with only 250 hours of flight time, even though many regionals required 1,000 hours a year ago.
Mesaba said Thursday that its 600 "minimum preferred hours" of flight time is "consistent with regional carrier standards." Mesaba cited eight others, ranging from 250 hours at Trans State Airlines to 1,000 hours at Republic. Mesaba said that some pilots it hired in the past few months had more than 1,300 hours.


http://www.startribune.com/535/story/1328757.html

This was taken off of the Regional board. As I read this (i'm a fractional pilot), I can't help not to think of the industry as a whole for us pilots who make this a career not a hobby. All I can say is bye bye to the major airline as we know it.
 
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