Decoding the “Acute Shortage of Pilots”

Decoding the “Acute Shortage of Pilots”

The Wall Street Journal printed an article describing an impending “acute shortage of pilots.”  It featured quotes from many industry insiders giving the impression that this “crisis” caught the entire industry by surprise and that government needs to take an active role in fixing the problem.  As is the case with many well-meaning missives, sometimes there is another way of viewing the situation.  We will present that view, and it is not what the common observer would expect.

This article has generated considerable buzz in the professional piloting ranks and the short-sighted among us are already counting their chickens from a basket of hard boiled eggs.  This is not an article explaining how pilots are about to embark on a period of prolonged upward bargaining, but how the A4A (Airlines For America) and government are about to undercut the pilots for the last time.

We have been saying since we went public in 2010 that we are locked into battle with airline executives and they are pushing to have complete and irreversible victory by the end of the decade.  They want to implement their “lift-brokering” model, where pilots have no leverage and are consigned to being whip-sawed by management for their entire careers.  We stand by that statement.

Deception is a major part of any successful battle.  If you can get your enemy to commit to an action that you have already anticipated, you command the upper hand.  Getting him to do so by thinking that he has the upper hand is the way to play this to perfection.  Anyone that has been to SERE School in the US military knows that you never believe anything that is said when the environment is controlled by your enemy.

One of the most lopsided military defeats of all time was when Hannibal defeated the Roman army at Cannae.  Hannibal, like the A4A, controlled the location and timing of the battle.  He also waited to exploit the natural weakness in the Roman leadership’s policy of having command alternate on a daily basis.  Hannibal wished to pitch battle when the weaker of the Roman leaders was calling the shots.  Hannibal knew the day of the battle and also had his army facing West, with the wind at its back.  The opposing Roman forces would be required to stare into the morning sun and be impaired by the dust that would blow from Hannibal’s forces to theirs.

At the outset of the battle, Hannibal’s forces yielded the center, but did not break their lines.  The Romans charged into the heart of the Carthaginian forces, thinking they would break their lines, only to have their flanks dissolved by the superior Carthaginian cavalry.  The Romans had charged into the most famous “double envelopment” or “pincer” maneuvers in the history of warfare, and they didn‘t see it coming until it was too late.  For the remaining hours of that summer day, Legionnaire by Legionnaire was run-through and cleaved by a numerically inferior force, as they had no escape.  No matter where they turned, Hannibal’s swords cut them down – over 50,000 in total.  That number is particularly impressive, even by 20th Century standards.

For the 2228 years following Cannae, military commanders have tried to replicate such a lopsided victory with the same techniques, and very few have succeeded. It was a blunder borne of static thinking and contentment on the part of the defeated, and one of deception and preparation on part of the victors.

Airline executives are setting up for the same thing against the pilots of major airlines, and they will have their “double envelopment” by the end of the decade.  The WSJ article testifies to it.

They want us to think we need not unify against them and the laws they use to destroy our profession and personal livelihoods.  If they can get us to think that the next great pattern bargaining era is nigh, get us to rely on outmoded tactics, and charge against their perceived market weaknesses, they will be able to slam the door shut with their cavalry of foreign trained pilots and foreign owned airlines.

We offer the WSJ article for review.  Our comments are in BLUE.  Any emphasis is that of OPERATION ORANGE, and not the WSJ.

Airlines Face Acute Shortage of Pilots

November 12, 2012

U.S. airlines are facing what threatens to be their most serious pilot shortage since the 1960s, with higher experience requirements for new hires about to take hold just as the industry braces for a wave of retirements.

Federal mandates taking effect next summer will require all newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of prior flight experience six times the current minimum raising the cost and time to train new fliers in an era when pay cuts and more-demanding schedules already have made the profession less attractive. Meanwhile, thousands of senior pilots at major airlines soon will start hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65.

The WSJ does not report that the 1500 hour requirement, while a six-fold increase over a dangerously low minimum, is roughly half of what major airlines were using as the competitive minimums for military pilots recruited in the last part of the 20th Century, and roughly one quarter of what they used for civilian trained pilots recruited in the same era.  It would have been beneficial to their readership if they would have asked their industry sources about their current practice of  purposefully eschewing experienced pilots for compliant pilots.

It isn’t about safety, but about money and control.  With airline management and government, it always is.  Please see our review of the Colgan Air 3407 crash for a through review of how this practice is at the heart of what killed 50 people, and how the government continues to obfuscate on behalf of the industry.

The profession is substantially less attractive to individuals with high aptitudes for such work, which is why the government is fussing with very low minimum qualifications.  This is a problem of their own making since they have failed to exercise prudent oversight of the airline industry and the laws the executives have used to gut the pilot aptitude infrastructure that keeps the skies safe.  Only those that have little to offer will seek such a career, unlike the pilots recruited at the major airlines in the 20th Century.

A rule requiring new airline pilots to have at least 1,500 flying hours will postpone the day flight instructor John Adkins, above, can join a carrier.

The WSJ does not go into what “flight instructor” means in this context.  In the military context, “flight instructor” is almost always a seasoned combat aviator with 3 to 5 years (often more) of operational flying experience, in addition to the two to three years necessary to complete the course of training in the military flying community.  They are rarely the recent graduates of the flight school, but when they are, the school they have recently completed is the most rigorous in all the world.

In the civilian context, “flight instructor” is normally (but not always) a very young pilot that has recently completed a fairly informal training regimen taught by young pilots that are recent graduates of the very same flight school.  Often, these instructors operate out of rural airports with little oversight and relatively minimal certifications from the FAA.  This is done to “build time.”

Picture a driving school taught by 17 year old high school students.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the civilian flight instructor career path, but it is the most unstandardized and arguably the weakest of all the ways professional pilots lay the foundation for their careers.  Most of the time an intermediate step is required prior to being hired by a part 121 passenger operation.  This example, as was the case in Rebecca Shaw, the first officer on the ill-fated Colgan Air 3407, shows how these young pilots eagerly seek to skip the necessary experiences to becoming a competent part 121 airline pilot.[1]

The 24 year old first officer on Colgan Air 3407 built her time as a flight instructor in Northern Arizona, where she operated relatively primitive aircraft in very benign conditions.  The first time she had seen icing (a tangential factor in the Colgan Air 3407 crash) was when she was on her “initial operating experience” with Colgan Air.  It is reasonably theorized that her reliance on her time flying as an instructor caused her to raise the flaps during the stall event.  The crash was in a transport category aircraft, unlike her time as a flight instructor.  The NTSB did not attribute the first officer’s inexperience nor uncommanded raising of the flaps as a causal factor in the crash.  That would have drawn too much attention to the regional airline industry hiring inexperienced pilots with poor habits.

Keeping pilots with nothing other than minimal “flight instructor” experience from flying scheduled passenger transportation is good public policy.

Another federal safety rule, to take effect in early 2014, also will squeeze the supply, by giving pilots more daily rest time. This change is expected to force passenger airlines to increase their pilot ranks by at least 5%. Adding to the problem is a small but steady stream of U.S. pilots moving to overseas carriers, many of which already face an acute shortage of aviators and pay handsomely to land well-trained U.S. captains.

We have disputed the claim the newly written “part 117” will call for more pilots.  We do acknowledge that certain operations may require more staffing, but much of the new regulations are manpower-negative, such as the elimination of “30 in 7” flight time limitations (30 hours of flying in any rolling 7 day period) and substituting “54 in 7.”  This is to accommodate the “preferential bidding programs” that airline management force-fed the pilot unions during bankruptcy.  Additionally, daily flight time limitations will be increased from 8 hours to 9 hours in a bid to reduce acute fatigue.  We are not mistaken when we say the regulations will increase daily and weekly flight time in an effort to reduce fatigue.  A very comprehensive review of these regulations can be found in APPENDIX B of our proposed legislative draft.  We are very comfortable with our assertion that these new regulations are nothing more than Congress granting the industry its “wish list” for codification of pilot pushing.

“This is going to come to a crisis,” said Bob Reding, recently retired executive vice president of operations at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and now a consultant to FlightSafety International Inc., an aviation training provider.

Added Kit Darby, a consultant on pilot-hiring trends: “We are about four years from a solution, but we are only about six months away from a problem.”

Estimates differ on the problem’s magnitude. Airlines for America, a trade group of the largest carriers that collectively employ 50,800 pilots now, cites a study by the University of North Dakota’s aviation department that indicates major airlines will need to hire 60,000 pilots by 2025 to replace departures and cover expansion.

Mr. Darby’s firm calculates that all U.S. airlines, including cargo, charter and regional carriers, together employ nearly 96,000 pilots, and will need to find more than 65,000 over the next eight years.

In the past eight years, not quite 36,000 pilots have passed the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest test, the Air Transport Pilot exam, which all pilots would have to pass under the Congressionally imposed rules.

This is where the “double envelopment” begins.  If these numbers are correct, it would appear that a dramatic shortage of pilots will exist.  Since Congress has passed a series of laws ensuring that air transportation does not stop for mundane things like pilots resisting airline executives stealing millions of dollars in life earnings so they can walk away with tens of millions each, all while leaving weak and gutted airlines in their wakes, does any reasonable person believe Congress is going to tell executives that they now have to eat the bread they have buttered?  Will Congress let the market speak and force airlines to pay more for pilots?

Of course not.  If these numbers are true, no level of pilot compensation will cure the immediate problem (it will cure the longer-term problem).  It wouldn’t matter if you paid a Q-400 first officer $15,800/year[2] or if you paid her $350,000 – the lead time for pilots is too long.  If “we are about four years from a solution, but we are only about six months away from a problem,” money isn’t the issue – training is.  The former operations executive for American Airlines calls this “a crisis.”  That’s the word Congress needs to hear – “crisis” – and you can get anything from them to fix the crisis.  Congress is in the business of fixing crises. Never mind that the “crisis” was either purposefully created, or was allowed by an unfathomable level of ineptitude in the airline executives; Congress will give the execs what they want, as long as there exists a vacuum in policy imperatives from the pilots.  The executives didn’t care about the looming pilot shortage that any reasonably sentient being could have seen coming no less than 5 years ago, as they were too busy asset-stripping the air transportation infrastructure for their own 8-figure payouts.  Congress didn’t care because their constituents were fat and happy flying around with the pilots subsidizing their fuel, and the NMB (under both Bush and Obama) didn’t release any pilot group to strike.

The regulatory imperative has been two-fold in the past decade:  pay pilots less and drop experience requirements to keep the bodies in the cockpits.

Does anyone believe airlines will suddenly ratchet up pay to compete for the few competent pilots looking for work, or will they continue to outsource to the lowest bidder in a scheme that shields the airline from the liabilities of dirty, mal-regulated, outsourced “lift contractors?”

If you believe the former, you are probably an elected official for a pilot union.
If you believe the latter, you should be an elected official for a pilot union.

They are going to do what they have been doing because the laws have not changed.  They will continue to drive down compensation and find more and more inexperienced pilots that will work for the “Next-gen” contracts.

For passengers, the biggest impact is expected to be at smaller, regional carriers. They have traditionally been a training ground feeding pilots to the bigger airlines, which are expected to step up their poaching.

“Training ground?”  Major airlines have been booking their passengers on “training grounds?”  Since when is a part 121 airline a “training ground?”  This kind of mentality is what killed 50 people in Buffalo in 2009, and the government doesn’t care.  Sure, we see some political eyewash when the grieving families are in the room, but little has changed to make the “regional airlines” safer.  We see this as an enormous threat to passenger safety, which is why our mission statement has always read: “PROTECTING THE FLYING PUBLIC…”  Government and industry do not have passenger safety as their goals, but the protection of executive compensation and air service in and out of key Congressional districts.

Roger Cohen and the entire cadre of industry spokesmen all prattle on about a mythical “one level of safety.”  Captain Sullenberger disputes this “one level of safety” as do we and any other serious observer of modern air transportation.  There can be no “one level of safety” if the “regional airline” model is a “training ground” for the bigger airlines.

People are stuffed onto dirty, mal-regulated airlines as guinea pigs for shadow flight schools, or “training grounds.”  Our proposed legislation remedies this phenomenon by establishing regulatory minimums to dissuade executives from outsourcing to the lowest (and dirtiest) bidder.

“Absent a game-changing shift in the supply of pilots“, small to midsize communities “are in jeopardy of losing some, if not all, their scheduled flights,” Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said in a July speech.

That’s a direct threat to Congressmen from rural communities.  He knows that Congressmen are not going to countenance any market reality that jeopardizes his constituents’ abilities to get from Smallville, USA to a major metropolitan airline hub.

However, Roger Cohen reveals the solution to the “crisis,” when he is quoted as saying “Absent a game-changing shift in the supply of pilots…”  Only a fool would believe he is throwing his hands up to the unavoidability of misfortune; he is revealing the strategy of the airline trade associations – they are looking at a “game changer” that dramatically increases the “supply of pilots,“ and they are asking Congress to make it happen (they want the law changed).  Since there is no domestic source for such supply, there is only one place to look – cabotage and foreign pilots flying in the United States.

More than half of U.S. airline pilots are over 50, said Mr. Darby, the consultant, reflecting a bulge in new hires in the 1980s and scant hiring over the past decade.

In 2007, to bring the U.S. into alignment with some other countries, regulators extended the mandatory retirement age to 65 from 60. By some estimates, 80% of 60-year-old U.S. pilots now are staying on longer. But in December, the first of those who extended their careers will start turning 65.

The “Fair Treatment of Experience Pilots Act” was passed in 2007, over the objections of the overwhelming majority of line pilots at the major airlines, but with the blessings of our largest pilot association.  This law raised the mandatory retirement age at a time there was a glut of major airline pilots in the United States.  The age was raised from 60 to 65, which was seen as “fairness” to many elderly pilots, but caused significant career and financial damage to the younger pilots.

The truth behind the legislation had nothing to do with “fairness,” since Congress has been wholly deaf to the pleas from airline employees regarding the inherent unfairness in the combination of the Railway Labor Act and the Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws.  Congress granted the industry a needed stepping stone to allowing foreign airlines to operate within the United States.  Most foreign nations had “age 65” long before the United States did.  In fact, many senior captains would retire from the various US carriers and fly for foreign airlines for an additional 5 years.  The problem was that foreign airlines could not operate in the United States if many of their captains were over age 60, as many were.  By raising the retirement age to 65, this problem was solved.

Capt. John Silverman, a 64-year-old US Airways Group Inc. pilot, stuck around when the law changed but must retire in April. “I’m extremely healthy,” he said. “I could do more time. But 65 is plenty.”

The FAA’s head of flight standards, John Allen, said at an industry conference this summer that the projected retirement numbers are “astounding and dramatic” and “we don’t have a system to address this issue.” A spokeswoman for the FAA said its official position is “to obtain data to determine long-term pilot staffing needs and solutions.”

“…and solutions.”  What “solution” could government come up with, other than regulating the industry in such a fashion that the supply of competent pilots naturally flows from a domestic source, such as that proposed by OPERATION ORANGE?  Absent standing-up massive government funded flight academies, the only “solution” is to do what government has done with just about every other industry, and allow foreign ownership and cabotage.  Piloting for a part 121 carrier will simply be “another job Americans won’t do.”

After a decade of consolidation and restructuring, some large carriers are planning to start hiring again. Delta Air Lines Inc. estimates it will need 3,500 new pilots over the next decade to maintain its ranks at 12,000, not including any growth. American Airlines recently said it plans to add 2,500 pilots over the next five years. United Continental Holdings Inc. has begun taking applications for a few positions in its Continental subsidiary.

Dave Barger, chief executive of JetBlue Airways Corp., said in an October speech that the industry is “facing an exodus of talent in the next few years” and could “wake up one day and find we have no one to operate or maintain those planes.”

The government has already allowed the airlines to outsource most of their heavy maintenance to overseas contractors, where the FAA has little, if any, oversight of the quality.  How would this be different with operators (pilots)?  Flight attendants are unskilled, unlicensed labor, and are comparatively cheap and easy to control, and there is little in the way of preventing them from being outsourced to immigrant labor.  Employees that are required to hold FAA licenses are much harder to find, so the government grants exemptions and turns a blind eye to safety violations.

There are limits to the ability of airlines, especially the regional carriers, to attract more pilots by raising wages. While the industry’s health has improved in recent years, many carriers still operate on thin profit margins, with the airlines sandwiched between rising costs for fuel and unsteady demand from price-sensitive consumers.

This comes down to basic economics.  Regional airline routes have almost always been money losers.  During the regulated era, the larger lines subsidized the smaller lines to provide air service to smaller markets.  Deregulation put those smaller markets in jeopardy and the larger airlines slashed customer service, maintenance, and employee salaries to help make up the shortfall.  Soon, the “regional airline” concept was hatched to help mask the dismal margins of these thin markets.  Add in foreign subsidies of aircraft manufacturing and pilots willing to work for food-stamp wages and the industry became overpopulated, which further drove down prices and margins.

To say that pilot salaries will drive away “price-sensitive” customers, one wonders just how sensitive these passengers are.  Are they likewise “price-sensitive” when it comes to the price of jet fuel, aircraft capital costs, and the hefty taxes all levels of government attach to tickets, or is the problem just pilot salaries?  Judging by the plethora of overpriced coffee stands and partial-service restaurants inside the sterile areas of the air transportation system, it is difficult to think customers are that price sensitive.

Those who traffic in such myths have little apparent grasp of 5th Grade math and a $2 calculator.  As we pointed out above, the entry level salaries of pilots in the “regional airline” industry are abysmal.  A typical pilot for this type of operation flys aircraft where average a passenger capacity is in the low 60s.  They also fly close to the FAA maximum of 1000 hours per year.  If we assume 60 seats at an 85% load factor (both very conservative by modern standards), and 900 hours per year of actual flying, the typical pilot will fly 45,900 “passenger-hours” over the course of the year.  If we divide the typical salary of $20,000 by the passenger-hours, the cost to the customer is approximately $0.44 (forty-four cents) per passenger per hour.  The average endurance of a flight in this type of operation is less than one hour, which approximates 40 cents per ticket.

If new entrant first officers made five times this amount, ticket prices would go up less than two dollars, or less than half the price of a blended coffee beverage at any airport coffee stand.

If passengers are going to balk at an additional few dimes, they are welcome to drive the distance at a fuel cost of $8.50 per hour.  If they wish to fly to their destinations, they can cover the costs of providing that service in addition to a reasonable rate of return for the investors.

Dan Garton, chief executive of AMR’s regional American Eagle unit, said the issue “is going to become much more visible when regionals have to decrease their flying” for lack of pilots, and some smaller cities lose air service.

This is where the air transportation trade associations issue threats.  They are telling Congressmen that their airport is in jeopardy of being culled from the larger air transportation system unless the “game changes” and another source of pilots is found.  Most Congressmen do not care about the health of the larger air transportation system, but only that their district has cheap, frequent jet service to the larger system.  “Give us what we want (foreign pilots) or your constituents can ride the bus.”

As always, the airline executives are two steps ahead of the pilot associations.

Mr. Garton said he has beaten the drum about the problem on Capitol Hill and at the FAA without success. The FAA said it has been encouraging discussions among industry officials to come up with solutions.

Garton has “beaten the drum” on Capitol Hill without success, so he is taking it up a notch.

Some regulators and industry experts worry about the safety implications of having a smaller pool of applicants at a time when demand for pilots is rising. They fret that some smaller airlines could be forced to lower internal criteria and hire applicants with questionable skills or spotty training records.

“It certainly will result in challenges to maintain quality,” said John Marshall, an independent aviation-safety consultant who spent 26 years in the Air Force before overseeing Delta’s safety. “Regional carriers will be creative and have to take shortcuts” to fill their cockpits, he said.

When OPERATION ORANGE went public in late 2010, we warned of an inevitable “catastrophic failure” of the air transportation system unless changes to the regulatory paradigm governing pilot contract negotiations and safety regulations were overhauled in favor of the pilots.  This is exactly what we have been talking about.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger also warned of this very circumstance when he testified in front of Congress:

“If we do not sufficiently value the airline piloting profession and future pilots are less experienced and less skilled, it logically follows that we will see negative consequences to the flying public – and to our country.”

This is a problem of the industry’s creation and they have the temerity to ask that it be resolved on their terms.

This article implies that the current crop of applicants to the “regional airlines” have the necessary “right stuff” and training records of the major airline pilots.  The investigation of the Colgan Air 3407 crash revealed this to be manifestly false.  The current crop of new-entrant first officers in the “regional airlines” are already fraught with these problems, as highlighted by the pilots of that ill-fated flight.  They were not the exceptions.  Even worse, the NTSB did not cite lack of pilot expertise and problematic training history as factors in the crash.[3]  The mind boggles at what pressure must have been brought to bear to get the NTSB to ignore the thundering herd of elephants in the room.

Ahead of the new 1,500-hour rule, the Regional Airline Association has been testing its first officers regularly in preparation for meeting the standards, said Scott Foose, the trade group’s vice president of operations and safety. “Working collaboratively with the FAA, hundreds of first officers have already received their new certificates and the rest are on track to obtain theirs,” Mr. Foose said.

The military hasn’t been a major source of commercial pilots for years, and the supply of new pilots has been dwindling. Among the reasons is that would-be fliers face expensive training with no guarantee of being hired by an airline once they complete it.

This is a true statement.  The military has drawn down its flying ranks, but more importantly, the military offers a more stable compensation package, including receiving a pension at the age of 43.  No self-respecting officer is going to leave the military to commute across the country on “regional jets,” sleep in a crowded “crash pad” in Queens, and be ordered around by a 30 year old crew scheduler when he has the option of being a commanding officer of a squadron.  He is also not going to leave a six-figure income with full benefits to take the downward spiraling “Next-gen” compensation of the modern airlines.

Civilian training is expensive and the cost of taking on this expense doesn’t “pencil out” with the passenger airlines (major or regional).  The only people who will be attracted to such an arrangement will be those that have little to offer any other respectable line of work.  When you can make more as a UPS delivery truck driver, why fly a jet?  The truck driver sleeps in his own bed 30 nights per month, whereas the pilot only gets 10-12.

The compensation levels are so low that today’s aspirants look at their prospects and balk, even when the airline executives are waiving their arms about an impending shortage of pilots.  Pilots hired by the major airlines in the 1990s were keenly aware of the wave of Vietnam era pilots that would retire and create demand for new pilots.  They saw through the early ‘90s airline malaise and calculated their investment would pay off.  Today’s would-be pilot applicants see the clamor over a pilot shortage and conclude that it is either a mirage or not worth pursuing.

Whose fault is that?

Third Coast Aviation, a flight school in Kalamazoo, Mich., said business is down 30% to 40% over the past five years. At California Flight Academy in El Cajon, Calif., the rolls are full, but almost entirely with foreign students who will soon return to their home countries. “We don’t have locals learning to fly anymore,” said Ash Dakwar, the academy’s operations chief.

Americans don’t want the job at these prices and under these circumstances.  However, foreign students will pursue the career, as most of the rest of the world has fewer job prospects to compete with being an airline pilot, thus making piloting relatively more prestigious.  The US, along with the rest of the highly developed nations, have quality flight schools (compared to the foreign options) and attract young pilots from overseas to complete their training.  The institutional expertise doesn’t exist in the developing world.  This is why foreign airlines are paying top dollar to have US pilots (along with pilots from other developed nations) fly their airplanes.  These ex-pats are effectively exporting their expertise to train the next generation of pilots that will displace US pilots.

The writing is on the wall.  Only foreign pilots are willing to pursue the career, so that is where the US airline industry will go to recruit the “Next-gen” pilot for “Next-gen” compensation under the “Next-gen“ lift-brokering model.  Airline executives will gladly raise their pay (as compared to what they make outside the US) to bring another source of pilots to market.  This ensures their “lift-brokering” model stays on schedule and gives them a tremendous ability to “whip-saw” the existing airline pilots.

It is all about control.  If you have control, nothing else matters.

While no one tracks overall attendance at the nation’s 3,400 flight schools, FAA data show annual private and commercial pilot certificates both required to become an airline pilot are down 41% and 30%, respectively, in the past decade. The National Association of Flight Instructors, in a research paper published this year, said that “there is no feasible way to continuously supply qualified pilots for the demand of air carriers.”

Congress’s 2010 vote to require 1,500 hours of experience in August 2013 came in the wake of several regional-airline accidents, although none had been due to pilots having fewer than 1,500 hours.

Regional carriers now are racing to make sure their pilots have 1,500 hours by next summer, while also trying to bolster their ranks. But prospects with close to the required number of hours aren’t numerous. “These people just don’t exist,” said Mr. Garton of American Eagle.

Sure the do; they exist overseas.  If the Congress follows the same model they have with maintenance outsourcing, it will be very easy for the US airline industry to stand-up minimally qualified airlines to fly within the US.  This will come at the expense of flying done outside the US, but if the US lags the rest of the world in economic recession, two problems are solved.

The FAA is trying to soften the blow. It has proposed a rule that would lower the requirement to 750 hours for military aviators and 1,000 hours for graduates of four-year aviation universities. But the exemption, if it goes through, may come too late, and it isn’t expected to help most aviators in training anyway, because they come from other types of flight schools.

It is not the job of the FAA to “soften the blow” for an industry that purposefully created this crisis.  It is the job of the FAA to enforce a rigorous safety standard to protect the flying public from short-sighted airline executives.  Unfortunately, the “dual mandate” for the FAA puts it in this position of having to clean up the mess created reckless executives.

750 hours for military aviation is roughly the amount of time needed to complete pilot training and two years in an operational squadron.   1000 hours of civilian training is roughly the equivalent, but in a much less demanding environment.  Military aviators hired at major airlines in the 20th Century typically had 8 to 9 years of military flying experience as a minimum.  Granting a shortcut for class work looks good on paper, but it does not translate to more proficient piloting any more than taking additional classes in lieu of performing a medical residency can make you a better surgeon.  Only experience can do that.  There is much more to be learned from dealing with your own engine failure than reading about someone else’s engine failure.

Roger Cohen was quoted as president of the Regional Airline Association that “Time spent in a classroom is more valuable than towing banners above the beach.”  He could not be more wrong, but that isn’t the point.  Cohen’s target audience is not professional airline pilots with decades of experience with flight standards and evaluations; his target audience is Congress and the FAA.

For them, the challenge of meeting the new requirements is uncharted and costly. “I’m stuck being a flight instructor for another year,” said John Adkins, a 27-year-old pilot at California Flight Academy. He achieved the current minimum for being a co-pilot, but the new rule has delayed his dream to join an airline. “You don’t make a lot of money as an instructor,” he said.

Of course pilots do not make a lot of money as instructors.  Civilian flight instructing is an entry level job to an entry level job.  Airline piloting is serious business and should only be performed by serious individuals with impressive qualifications. Ask the Colgan 3407 families if they agree with that statement.

The 1,500-hour mandate “has only discouraged a future generation of prospective pilots to pursue this career,” said Mr. Cohen, from the regional airline group. Those who persevere “will try to get the 1,500 hours the fastest and cheapest way possible,” he said. “Flying around in empty airspace or towing banners doesn’t give you the training you need to fly a complex airplane.”

No.  The wholesale destruction of the pilot compensation paradigm by financial sociopaths using cynical offensive bankruptcies, under the protection of a bizarre rubric of antiquated laws adjudicated in kangaroo courts, and given only token opposition by pusillanimous pilot unions is what has discouraged people from pursuing piloting as a career.  15 years ago, every serious applicant at a major airline had the ATP license (1500 hour minimum), and the reputable airlines had 10 applicants for every pilot they hired.  Mid eight figure payouts to airline executives isn’t helping recruit pilots.

Cohen is obsessed with the relatively little worth of pilots towing banners when compared to sitting in a classroom listening to the experience of others.  The reason for this has little to do with the realities of piloting expertise, but all to do with the fact anyone can complete classroom work.  Flying is expensive, hard to come by, and wholly unforgiving of incompetence, but sitting in a desk and listening to Power Point presentations is easy.  Easy means cheap.

Cohen also drones on about the non-existent “one level of safety” the FAA mandates.  There is only “one level” if that level is so low that it has no meaning.  The functional levels of safety are far different at the major airlines than at the existing regional airlines, and the prospective regional airlines of the future.  Everyone in the industry knows this to be true.

The mandate applies to regularly scheduled passenger and cargo airlines flying jets and larger turboprops. Cargo airlines could also end up struggling to recruit sufficient pilots. Smaller planes, on-demand charters and business jets aren’t covered by the new requirements.

The last big pilot shortage, in the 1960s, occurred because “everybody who was of a trainable age was in Vietnam,” said Randy Babbitt, a former FAA administrator who was hired as a pilot in that era. Meanwhile, airlines were expanding as jets shortened trips and boosted traffic. Once the military pilots finished their tours, many joined airlines and the shortage problem receded.

[End WSJ Article]

In short order, all the major airline pilots will be locked down with contracts.  Delta Air Lines has a three year deal with its pilots (extended indefinitely due to the RLA), and United/Continental will likely be under contract within a few weeks.  American Airlines pilots are being forced to sign a contract at the point of a gun, where they will be locked down for no less than six years.  If they fail to ratify their “Last Last Best Final Offer,“ their perceived obstinacy may be used as a pretext to “solve” the “crisis” of a lack of pilots in the US.  The pilots of US Airways/America West will likely be swept up into the maelstrom at American Airlines.

Three years is an eternity in this industry.  Both United and Delta went from cutting edge contracts to bankruptcy in less time, and US Airways pilots went through bankruptcy twice in less than three years.  Three years is how long American Airlines pilots will have to wait to get a significant pay increase, provided management is not pleading poverty to the NMB, Wall Street, and the Legislative branch.  RLA based negotiations routinely pass the three year mark.  Consolidation will help no more in this round than losing Braniff, TWA, Pan Am, Western, Reno, PSA, Air Cal, and Eastern did to stave off pattern bankruptcies last decade.  The only current protection against another round of pattern bankruptcies is the magnanimity of airline executives.

OPERATION ORANGE has outlined a foundation for a strong future for all airline pilots.  We have not addressed the issue of foreign ownership and cabotage in our proposed legislation.  This is not an oversight, but a realization that the existing task is daunting enough without complicating things with politics that extend beyond our borders.  We need to lay a foundation of trust borne of a “wartime partnership” with all pilot groups in order to fight those battles.

The threat is neither imaginary nor quixotic; it is very real and the industry is confident enough in the inevitability of its vision that they are now conditioning the public to accept it.  Note that the WSJ article made no reference to any airline executive saying that raising pilot salaries would help offset the “crisis.”  Pilot compensation can’t go up because “price-sensitive customers” can’t afford another 75 cents on their ticket price.  It’s much easier to get pilots to swallow a 40% cut in pay and the elimination of their pensions – they will still fly because the Second Circuit courts say they must.[4]

Our fear is that our pilot associations will fall back on what they know and embrace this change in an attempt to help “craft the final product.”  This is what they did with “age 65,” and no pilot association leader has taken any action, nor given any statement that would portend a different tack.  No pilot association has done anything meaningful in turning back the offensive bankruptcies at the legislative level, other than offering token amounts of campaign donations to help their “pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top” appeals for justice.

Pilots do what pilots do, which is to concentrate on the here-and-now at the expense of what is developing down the road.  The entire regional airline industry is a massive monument to the serial gullibility of pilots, and there is no indication this has changed.  All the new contracts feature a growing “regional jet” component in exchange for items which are easily taken back in bankruptcy.  Written guarantees in the various pilot working agreements are worthless in an §1113 hearing.

We look at these statements about how there are not enough pilots to fuel expansion, without questioning the veracity of the projections, and then myopically start a Pavlovian reaction to “supply and demand,” thinking the battle is won before the first shot is fired.  In reality, we are charging into a planned weakness, abandoning the idea that pilot groups need to unify for their own well-being, only to be cut off by the cavalry of foreign pilots, foreign ownership, and outright cabotage.

If we fail to prepare for the industry’s “pincer move,” our careers will meet the same fate as those 50,000 Roman Legionaires on that August morning.

We are presenting a problem and offering a solution.  Pressure your union officials to support OPERATION ORANGE.  Tell them you want more than hospice care for a dying career.

The career you save will be your own.

For more information, visit


[1] NTSB, Aircraft Accident Report: Loss of Control on Approach Colgan Air, Inc. Operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407 Bombardier DHC-8-400, N200WQ Clarence Center, New York February 12, 2009. AAR 10-01, APPENDIX B, Cockpit Voice Recorder Transcript, pp 251-252
The full report can be found on the NTSB website or at
[2] $15,800 was the first year earnings of Rebecca Shaw – the Colgan Air 3407 first officer. See NTSB, footnote 37.
[3] NTSB, executive summary, pg x.
[4] NWA v AFA, Docket Nos. 06-4371-cv(L), 06-4468-cv(CON).
HON. SEAN LANE, Memorandum of Decision, United States Bankruptcy Court 11-15463-shl, Doc 4044, pg 98,
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