So you just bought an airline ticket.
You wanted the cheapest fare, of course, but safety did cross your mind? For that reason, you clicked on tickets being sold by legacy airlines. Sure, it was a few bucks more — but you figured they’ve been in business a long time. You might have heard about an accident they were involved in – but that was years ago. Actually decades ago.
Like any ticket there was a bunch of fine print, most of which you didn’t read. Probably just a bunch of legal stuff anyway. Every ticket has a ton of disclaimers. But hidden in all that legal mumbo-jumbo is the fact that you aren’t actually flying on that legacy carrier at all. Or if you happen to have a plane change, one of the two flights might be scheduled on that legacy airlines’ code share partner. That airline, to your surprise, is a completely different airline. It operates under its own operating certificate. It has its own pilots, its own maintenance, and its own safety record.
On any given day, these “regional” airlines carry roughly half of all the legacy airlines’ domestic passengers. They also fly short-distance international flights — usually to Mexico or Canada.
What purpose do these regional airlines serve, you ask?
They supply the legacy airlines with a tremendous cost reduction. They do this by paying their employees only a fraction of what legacy airline employees make in salary.
By a fraction, I mean pennies on the dollar.
Unless you read the fine print — or listened closely to the wording of the announcements once you were on the flight — you likely would not know this. You see, the legacies don’t really want you to know this.
When passengers board a flight, they assume their pilots will react in a similar fashion should danger arise. No one likes to think about the risks that are inherent with flying. When challenges do occasionally pop up, it is the experience and the ability of the pilot that is expected to save the day. A pilot accepts this responsibility. It’s the nature of the job.
Over the past couple of decades, however, the familiar landscape of the airline industry has changed dramatically. Now, smaller and lesser-known regional airlines carry roughly half of all domestic passengers for America’s “legacy” airlines. Their airplanes are painted in the same livery as the legacy carrier(s) they code-share with, and their tickets are sold on the legacy’s website. Passengers must read the fine print to learn that — although they purchased their tickets on American, United, or Delta’s website — they have about a 50/50 chance of being flown by an entirely different carrier.
And flown by pilots who work, not for their legacy airline, but for the code-share partner Regional airline.
So why does this matter? After all, a pilot is a pilot — right?
Here’s where it starts to get very murky. While once a very lucrative (and glamorous) profession, the glory days of the aviation industry are long gone. For the pilots fortunate enough to land a job at a major airline, life is still pretty good. The pay is relatively good, and the schedules — while challenging at times — aren’t too bad. However, to drastically reduce labor costs, the legacy carriers created the regionals.
Pilot instructors and check pilots at several regional airlines have been screaming for the past few years that the quality of the pilots being hired is far worse than they have ever seen it. Some have resigned from their instructor positions — no longer wanting to be pressured by the company to “sign off” (pass) pilots who clearly don’t have the skills to fly at the proficiency level we’ve all come to expect from the typical airline pilot. After Colgan Air #3407 crashed in Buffalo in 2009, the lobbying efforts by the families of the victims pushed Congress to pass a law requiring an airline pilot to have at least 1,500 total flight hours before being eligible to apply.
It’s worth noting that there has not been a regional accident since this law went into effect.
Despite this, there are a couple of regional airlines which are paying their pilots to lobby Congress to alter the law – hoping to lower the requirement to a number that is far less than 1,500 hours. Up until the Colgan accident happened, pilots needed just over 200 total flight hours to get hired as a pilot at a regional. The argument some are making is that, even with 1,500 hours, a pilot still might not have enough quality experience to fly at a commercial airline. In other words, 1,500 hours in a small, rural airport is somehow inferior to, say, 300 hours flying in a busy airspace and dealing with challenging weather conditions. While this argument has merit, it misses the point entirely. A higher, professional-level wage will obviously attract better talent. We already know the old model didn’t work, given the frequency and severity of regional airline accidents leading up to — and including — Colgan #3407.
The typical pilot at a regional airline makes a fraction of what their counterparts make at the majors.
As recently as last summer, one regional airline was still paying its new first officers just over $19,000 per year (average pay for a new first officer at regional is now just over $30,000).
I have been on layovers where a first officer took out an EBT card to buy meals.
There’s a joke at the regionals: “What do you call a Regional first officer who isn’t married?”
So why does this matter? It doesn’t take a genius to see that ultra-low salaries won’t compel the best and the brightest to ignore other lucrative careers and choose to become pilots instead. And why would they? Taking the “civilian” pilot route (as opposed to military) is very expensive. Costs can reach approximately $150,000 (and sometimes higher) to obtain the necessary ratings and flight hours to be eligible to apply. Throw in the $30,000 per year for the first several years at a regional, the cost of medical and dental benefits, etc. — and there’s not much left to either put into savings or pay back student loans.
At some regional airlines, it can take six to eight years to have enough seniority to upgrade to captain. A captain position means more pay. Regional airline captains typically start near $60,000 per year. A senior captain at a regional airline makes approximately $100,000 per year.
By contrast, a senior captain at a legacy airline makes between $300,000 and $350,000 per year.
While the legacy carriers hire some regional pilots, far too many qualified pilots get turned down. Many are turned down repeatedly, despite a solid career at a regional airline. Given the huge amount of money the legacy carriers save by having regional airlines carry their passengers, why would they want to change anything? Hiring more regional pilots to fill legacy pilot positions would effectively shrink the companies they were hired from, given the regional airlines’ difficulty attracting new applicants. Despite various “flow-through” agreements between legacy airlines and their regional code-share partners (wherein a tiny percentage of regional pilots “flow” to their code-share legacy’s seniority list), the current system still leaves way too many regional pilots stuck at the regional pilot-level for years. Far too many never get out. These aren’t pilots with flaws on their employment records. They are pilots with impeccable records who got into this industry primarily to fly at a major airline.
I’m seeing more and more regional pilots simply quit the industry. The most common phrase I hear is, “had I known they were going to make it nearly impossible to get from the regionals to the majors, I never would have become a pilot in the first place.”
In the meantime, at the bottom of seniority lists at many regional airlines is a new crop of pilot. Instead of being weeded out (or washed out) during their initial training, they were allowed to repeat various aspects of training until they barely passed. It’s becoming more common. Regional airlines know how difficult it is to attract new pilots, so some of them find a way to pass the less-than-stellar ones they were able to attract.
As far as safety is concerned, we’re not exactly on a solid foundation anymore. The technology of the newer planes being flown at regionals has eliminated a great deal of risk from incompetency – but it most certainly hasn’t eliminated all of it. While it’s important for any company to keep costs down, the transport of human cargo makes the airlines unique. Just because there hasn’t been a major disaster, doesn’t mean things are now safer. The wolf is always at the door.
Do you really want the weakest link in the safety chain to be the pilot of your airplane?
The author is a professional pilot with many years of commercial aviation experience. Roger Murdock is a pseudonym.
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