ALPA: Don't Blame Pilot Shortage for Republic Plight

Stop blaming the perceived pilot shortage for the bankruptcy of Republic Aiways (RJET) , said Air Line Pilot Association President Tim Canoll, and stop blaming minimum flight time requirements for the perceived pilot shortage.

The real problem, Canoll said, is that regional airlines don't pay enough to encourage people to become pilots. Rather, the average annual salary at a regional airline is $27,350. "The supply of pilots willing to work for $25,000 is almost zero," Canoll said in an interview.

Canoll also said he would be willing to talk with the Allied Pilots Association, which represents about 15,000 American (AAL) pilots, about a merger. ALPA, the principal pilot union, has 52,000 members at 30 U.S. and Canadian airlines.

As for the perceived shortage, Canoll said, "We have many more pilots than people are asserting. We have plenty of pilots with certificates who are available to fly. The problem is they don't want the jobs; the jobs don't provide proper pay and benefits.

"The regional airlines are caught in the middle," Canoll said. "Their customers are mainline airlines who buy seats, and the mainlines will only pay so much."

Must Read: Labor Demands Will Challenge U.S. Airlines in 2016, Analyst Says

A problem at Republic, in addition to the salaries, has been the lack of career progression. Canoll singled out American subsidiary Envoy Air for providing "the goal standard, the envy of many of our other fee-for-departure carriers" because the pilot contract provides a path to flying mainline flights at American.

Republic filed Feb. 25 for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. "Our filing today is a result of our loss of revenue during the past several quarters associated with grounding aircraft due to a lack of pilot resources, combined with the reality that our negotiating effort with key stakeholders shows no apparent prospect of a near-term resolution," said CEO Bryan Bedford, in a prepared statement.

The airline, which flies for American, Delta and United, has a complex set of problems. Of its 241 aircraft, about 20% are 50-seat jets that are both uneconomic and unpopular with passengers. It has been dropping flights because it cannot hire pilots fast enough; pilots -- represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters -- leave regularly for mainline carriers.

A federal law that took effect in 2013 requires first pilots to have flight experience ranging from 750 hours to 1,500 hours.

While it is blamed for contributing to a pilot shortage, Canoll noted that its primary purpose is safety. "It is the product of the government, the airlines and pilots working together," he said.

The concept of an ALPA/APA merger surfaced last week when Neil Roghair, a former longtime APA leader, suggested that American pilots consider rejoining ALPA after leaving in 1963. A principal benefit, Roghair wrote in a Linkedin post, would be to enable all pilots, mainline and regional, to work together "to undo the scope mistakes of the past decades." Scope clauses in pilot contracts enable smaller, regional aircraft to be flown by non-mainline pilots.

"The days when regional pilots fought for flying at our expense are gone," Roghair wrote. "No one wants to be flying at the mainline more than the regional pilots. (And) if there is anyone else who truly wants these flights to be flown by mainline operations, it's our passengers.

"We can influence and shape this macro-trend much more if we are in a position of ALPA leadership, as opposed to remaining independent and struggling for relevance and influence in this fight," he said, noting that ALPA membership includes 12,500 regional pilots.

Canoll said Roghair "has been a staunch unionist and a great volunteer for American pilots for a long time. I agree that American pilots should have a discussion about rejoining ALPA ...I'm open to it."

Additionally, Canoll said ALPA has mixed feelings about the proposed Federal Aviation Authorization bill. On the plus side, the bill maintains minimum time regulations for commercial pilots.

The bill is unacceptable, however, because while it maintains a ban on shipping lithium batteries as cargo on passenger airlines, it would allow for shipping unrestricted quantities of lithium batteries on cargo airlines.

"For the first time in my career I can see a problem that we can fix now to prevent the next accident," Canoll said. "I am fearful there will be another accident due to lithium batteries." Since 2006, three accidents, including two involving UPS cargo planes, have been generally attributed to lithium battery explosions. A total of four pilots were killed.

"We shouldn't short circuit safety for economic gain," Canoll said. "We will keep fighting. But the battery lobby is very powerful here {as is} the consumer products lobby."

 

 

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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