New regulations produce pilot shortage

The challenges facing the small regional carriers are daunting, affecting more than just Great Lakes Airlines out of Fort Dodge. The recent federal changes to the requirements for airline pilots are adversely affecting Great Lakes right now – more significantly than other carriers. But as with many new regulations, the full unintended effects are not realized until there is a passage of time. One of the changes went into effect on Aug. 1, 2013, and the other significant change just went into effect on Jan. 4 had to do with time off for pilots between flights. While these changes are affecting the regional carriers and small airports the most right now, the impact is starting to cause issues for large carriers operating at large airports, which led to the canceled flight woes of JetBlue and large airlines during the first week of 2014 when the snow and cold caused delays.

Before Aug. 1, 2013, a flight crew member below the level of captain could work for Great Lakes Airlines with a minimum of 250 hours of cockpit time. Changes made at the federal level now require all cockpit officers for Great Lakes to have 1,500 hours of flight time. The earlier requirements were the big reason that our passengers saw such young pilots flying the planes. Younger crew members could be hired by Great Lakes, but it was commonplace for them to leave once they got more experience and could qualify for better jobs with bigger carriers. The regional carriers, such as Great Lakes, provided a critical component in the career progression of an airline pilot by enabling them to increase their flight hours and experience. They gained experience and hours so they could be hired by the large air carriers. This career progression is now interrupted and the question is: “Where will future airline pilots come from?”

Anticipating the changes, Great Lakes hired a significant number of pilots that became qualified under the current regulation believing these pilots would have enough flight time and experience to continue to fly after Aug. 1. However, the new requirement enacted by Congress did not grandfather any pilots in when the changes occurred. So on July 31, 2013, a pilot was flying as a commercial airline pilot and then on Aug. 1, 2013, he was declared not qualified simply because a page turned on the calendar. It’s disturbing and disrupting that Congress could suddenly declare that a pilot who has made 300-plus trips from Fort Dodge to Minneapolis in a twin engine turbo prop aircraft is no longer qualified to continue to make those flights while a pilot with 1,500 hours of flight time, possibly only in a single engine aircraft with no experience in flying a commercial aircraft is. The result of these damaging policies has a devastating impact for a business and for our community. One has to ask: How does this increase safety? To further compound the issue, the large carriers were aggressively recruiting the Great Lakes pilots who had the required 1,500 flight hours by paying unprecedented bonuses to come work for them. Great Lakes lost 50 percent of its pilots from January to December 2013. Most of these losses occurred in the last quarter of the year after the changes in the hour requirements were implemented.

The changes the government enacted are pricing young pilots out of the small-carrier market because the cost of an individual paying for 1,500 hours of flying time is not justified by the salary they will make. To put it in perspective, the cost to rent a small single engine four seat aircraft in Fort Dodge is $105 per hour, or $157,500 for 1,500 hours. Keep in mind, this cost is only for a small single engine airplane and doesn’t include any costs for flight instruction, or the higher level of training needed to become an airline pilot. The individual pilot who pays for 1,500 hours of flight time isn’t going to be looking to a regional carrier for a job, because they pay less that the bigger carriers do.

The final ruling for the exact requirements on this new rule did not get released by the government until the middle of July 2013, leaving no time for Great Lakes to react before it went into effect on Aug. 1, 2013. It is impossible to find pilots with 1,500 hours to comply with these new rules – they just aren’t out there.

As a result, Great Lakes has experienced an unprecedented number of flight cancellations due to implementing these two federal regulations. They simply don’t have the amount of pilots to fill the schedule under the current regulations and they can’t replace them fast enough. Small regional carriers such as Great Lakes operate with extremely small margins in their budgets for finance, equipment and personnel. If one aircraft in their fleet cannot operate, it can disrupt their entire schedule. The same now goes for flight crews. Without the ability to hire younger pilots with fewer hours, those who remain with the company are indispensable. For example, if just one pilot hasn’t had the required amount of hours of rest, gets sick, or even is stuck in a traffic jam, cancellations are inescapable and disruptive.

The challenge smaller regional markets and airports such as ours to maintain commercial air service is immense. New federal regulations such as these recently implemented ones only compound the challenges.

Smaller economies such as our rural area are already fragile and can be adversely impacted by well intended, but devastating moves by regulators. We can successfully navigate around many of the obstacles when presented that threaten our rural economy, but the damage to commercial air service – such a vital component of the local economy and our ability to compete in a global economy – seems insurmountable by these new government regulations. We must ask that this be revisited by our elected representatives.

Rhonda Chamber is director of aviation at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport.