Well.. who would have thought. A wonderful idea to the lawmakers has turned into a nightmare for the citizens of the United States. For once, we’re NOT talking about Obamacare. After the Colgan Air Dash 8 Q400 crash in Buffalo, New York – the government was pressured to do something – make more requirements for pilots who were apparently “overworked”, “undertrained”, or just bad aviators. Lots of ideas got thrown around, and the smaller airlines warned us of what could happen. And unfortunately they were right.
The new laws require that first officers, or the typically lower-experienced flight crew member, now holds an Air Transport Pilot Rating and have at least 1000 or 1500 hours of flight time under their belt. I’ve always thought this was overkill, merely because most captain positions require this (or did). Basicly, a pilot needs at least 2 SOLID years of flight time to operate a Part 121 aircraft – anything with 10 or more selling seats. But, just as we see with some foreign airlines, lots of hours of flight time doesn’t always mean you have pilots who know how to fly (re: Asiana crash in San Francisco).
It has always been a challenge to staff the regionals – I recall a meeting with Great Lakes CEO Doug Voss, who once said “who wants to retire here? we’re merely a training ground for United Airlines” back in the mid 90s. Most pilots don’t day dream of flying an Embraer Brasilia or Saab 340 for the rest of their life: they want the big jets. Paris. International. Left seat.
Before this law was passed, airlines like Colgan, Mesaba, Republic, Mesa, and Gulfstream were known to hire pilots with as few as 500 flight hours. Now, they can’t until someone reaches 1500. Pilots would typically work for the smaller airlines – think Cape Air, Air Choice One, SeaPort, Mokulele, Pacific Wings – to build their hours until they reached the minimum threshhold. These smaller carriers fly 9 seat Cessna 208 Caravans, PC-12s, and Cessna 402s to many small communities. Under Part 135, you need to have 1500 hours and an ATP rating to be a captain – so now we are presenting ourselves with problem #1. The moment the first officer at Mokulele reaches his 1500 mark, there is no reason to stay unless he wants experience as a captain… he can now go apply at Mesa or Shuttle America and start flying a shiny jet. He’s done the time and is done flying VFR in an unpressurized airplane. He now wants to sit reserve in Boise, Idaho for the next 2 years until he can become a captain, then after a year or two hope he lands a job at Alaska Airlines flying 737s. So now, Mokulele can find itself short captains – or a job pool of pilots who were not accepted/fired/let go from the other regionals.
Problem #2 focuses on the Part 121 guys: Why should a pilot with 1500 hours fly for a Silver, Great Lakes, or Republic (Dash 8) when they can be hired by Mesa flying a CRJ 900? Or go work for American Eagle and their new Embraer 175s coming on property soon (albeit for sh*tty pay).
Fast forward to today and this “pilot shortage” is causing havoc in the EAS world. Both Silver and Great Lakes are having severe operational issues – and I can probably say its easily pointed at the pilot/crewing issue. Mokulele, where I do perform advisory duties, fortunately hasn’t had much of a problem – but it could. As could Cape Air and any other Part 135 carrier if the Part 121 guys start to get desperate. Fortunately Mokulele tries to have a decent quality of life and taking steps to help make commuting & travel easier.
Great Lakes & Silver aren’t minting money, so they aren’t really in a position to greatly increase their pilot salaries. Plus, it would be insane to offer a street captain (someone hired off the street to be a captain rather than upgrade a first officer) $80 an hour to fly a 30 seat plane. But they may have to. Great Lakes is losing markets, and Silver’s markets are all complaining. Great Lakes has already lost Pueblo and Laramie to SkyWest. Moab and Vernal Utah have gone to SkyWest, and Jamestown is about to go that route too. A few of the communities in Pennsylvania 2 are screaming at Silver, as are the southern markets. And Great Lakes awesome flights to Williston, North Dakota were taken over by “partner” United Airlines and are now flown by jets (Great Lakes used to be the sole carrier with 5-6 flights a day in 30 seat Embraer Brasilias, and was later flown at-risk – no subsidy).
So what is going to happen? I foresee the Part 135 carriers growing – because of the operational issues at the 121 carriers will probably make the airports think twice before ignoring, if not lambasting, the 9 seat operators (as the South cities did when SeaPort & Air Choice One both found when bidding on the Mississippi/Alabama EAS routes to Memphis). I see it becoming more challenging for the Part 121 carriers without jets being able to staff their planes with COMPETENT crews, as they will only be able to hire pilots that the larger regionals rejected (or the minority few pilots who prefer smaller planes/live in base, etc). Its also going to be a challenge for these same airlines to RETAIN their pilots – so if you own a Part 135 carrier and are scheduled, you need to get in CASS & myIDtravel so your pilots can commute/see their families! But now we have a few markets in the mid-south struggling to retain their EAS status because they need to meet the 10 passengers/day requirement. I hate to say “I told you so” to Tupelo, Greenville, and others - but if you had selected Air Choice One / SeaPort, you’d be in a MUCH different position today. Smaller planes, but at least you’d have a cheap fare and flight that departs on time.
The other alternative is to reverse the FAA’s moves in the 90s that placed many 19/30 seat planes under Part 121 rules than 135. Maybe its time to move the 19/30 seaters back to Part 135 with some additional rules – then you’ll be able to see Great Lakes & Silver do much much better…. call it Super 135 regulations (ie – require dispatch, 2 person crew, ATP/1500 hours in the left seat, 500 hours min right seat). This way, we can go back to how it was before — pilots learned to AVIATE (fly) at the regionals before moving to the jets.
We need to do this, otherwise we may see a lot more of the Asiana San Francisco incidents happen more and more (the pilots were not stick-flying the plane, but relying on automation to land it) — so this “great” law passed to make life better for pilots and “safer” for the rest of us has some damning repercussions. So just like my libertarian stances on Obamacare – I think the government should go back and redo this law so that it is more effective, has more support of the airlines, and still provides a safe flying environment.
For information on the 1500 hour rule - click here.