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Regional connection

US regional carriers play a crucial role in the American air transport system. But will increasingly serious staffing problems affecting many of those airlines lead to economic thrombosis? Alan Dron reports

Over the past 20 years, the number of US majors has inexorably shrunk as bankruptcies and amalgamations have taken their toll. With airline names such as Northwest Airlines, Continental, US Airways and America West Airlines now confined to the history books, the number of US majors is just four – United, American, Delta and Southwest.

Alaska Airlines, gaining in size following its takeover of Virgin America, and JetBlue make up a small, second tier group. Then there is a trio of low cost carriers – Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier.

Under these big names, however, come the regionals. More than 20 criss-cross the country, connecting secondary and tertiary cities and frequently providing the sole links between those cities and the major hubs.

Usually, they operate in the colours of the majors for which they provide feeder services as United Express, Delta Connection or American Eagle. Each of those brands incorporates several regional carriers, with most of them substantial airlines by any standards.


Their scale can be seen from the fact that, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA), which represents 22 carriers, regional airlines operate 44% of US scheduled commercial airline departures.

But, although many regionals report stable or growing markets, they increasingly face a major problem, namely the shortage of new pilots. The reasons for this situation are well known: in response to safety concerns after the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air flight in Buffalo, New York, the US government ruled that all pilots of US airlines had to have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) qualification of at least 1,500 hours in their logbooks prior to hiring.

This has led to a crisis in the supply of young pilots who now face several more years of gaining experience, together with the associated costs, before they can start to earn a salary at one of the regionals.

The RAA has been seeking ways of easing the log jam. In December 2017, it urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use its existing powers to approve ‘additional, safety-enhancing structured training pathways for Part 121 airline first officers’.

It is thought regulatory obstacles and high training costs are barring entry to the career during a period of unprecedented major airline hiring. With too few pilots to serve all of today’s routes, the regional airline industry is contracting.

The RAA noted that the accelerating shortage of pilots had led to the regional airline industry contracting sharply between 2013 and 2016. In that period, 156 airports lost at least 20% of their departures; 52 airports lost at least half; 29 lost at least 75% and 18 airports lost all their commercial air services.

Without intervention, these impacts will further deepen as US major airlines prepare to hire the equivalent of the entire regional airline pilot workforce within the next three years.

“Improving aviation safety and reopening the pilot career path are not mutually exclusive objectives,” said RAA President Faye Malarkey Black. “We urge the FAA to review the available data and carefully evaluate additional pathways, approving them where they will enhance safety.” >>


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