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Pilot Shortages and the impact on the Seniority System

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Pilot Shortages and the impact on the Seniority System

Old 15th Nov 2013, 12:14
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Pilot Shortages and the impact on the Seniority System

I started out responding to another thread but felt this needed a new thread because Iím opening up a huge can of worms here. This is not a rant and Iím not trolling. This is a serious issue that warrants deeper discussion for the sake of all our careers. Please keep it civil.

There is in fact a worldwide pilot shortage and its ramifications have yet to be felt fully in the U.S. but its probably coming. Some countries are parking planes or flying reduced schedules due to lack of crews while other countries are furloughing... There are opportunities overseas for current and experienced pilots but not for low time recent college graduates.

In my opinion the biggest problem in the U.S. isn't so much the fact that young low time pilots are willing to work as interns (of course they are...there are no other choices for them), but that experienced captains who may suddenly find themselves out of a job can't get back in unless they are willing to take those same low paying entry level jobs...start all over at the bottom of "the list."

I'm sure if it were up to the management at the regional (and even major) airlines they would much prefer to hire experienced captains at decent wages as well as inexperienced entry level positions who work their way up. Pretty much any other professional career works this way. Google can hire a high end experienced software engineer away from Microsoft (for example) and pay a solid competitive salary without the inexperienced entry level employees getting all bent out of shape over it.

The problem is managementís hands are tied. They have the dilemma of crewing smaller jets with pilots who want to fly larger jetsÖitís a self fulfilling prophecy. They know for every captain who moves on to a larger jet at a larger airline they need to train two more pilots to replace that one who left. They also know they must promote from a pool of possibly low time pilots (especially during a hiring boom period). They would rather hire another captain to replace the captain who left. Where from? Another airline of course; a competitor probably. They would prefer to pay competitive salaries and just reduce training costs but the economies of scale donít permit it. How did those economies of scale come into being? From the same system that allows the low paying jobs in the first place.

The problem is it's not up to the airlines....it's up to us. As pilots we are indoctrinated to believe the seniority system is an unbreakable law of nature. I know pilots hired as captains by ALPA regionals that had young co-pilots six months in and 1/3 their flight time treat them like a scab as if they had taken their job. It's complete garbage. No other professional position has a job market like this.

Why should a captain of a 50-100 seat regional jet feel any less professional than a captain of a 130-160 seat Boeing or Airbus. It sure has hell isn't any easier of a job nor does it require less skill...probably more. Granted experience brings the ability to get the cushy jobs that pay more and are less stressful but why should this be dictated solely on seniority within each company? In any other profession your performance, loyalty, experience, and many other factors come into play. In a free market you can compete for those jobs without having to start at the bottom all over again.

Now I understand the need for unions and the need of airline pilots to protect themselves from management repercussions when they make safety decisions in the heat of the moment that may, in hindsight, not be the best or may not be in the best interest of the company. I also understand the need to protect ourselves from the abuses of management when things aren't so good (not that it's served pilots in the long run...we still get laid off and we still take pay cuts and deal with cancelled contracts).

I'm just saying that the strict seniority system doesn't always work in an industry wide system. A free and open job market may serve us better through an actual pilot shortage if experienced captains can be recruited directly into their seat by another airline that needs to fill those seats quickly. It certainly wouldn't hurt our argument for higher salaries if the airlines can in turn reduce training costs. It sickens me whenever I hear pilots brag about how they managed to get excessive time off, excessive training, or otherwise managed to take advantage of loopholes in their contract only to complain about their pay.

It's actually quite ridiculous that we feel one should cut their teeth as a captain in a regional jet carrying 50-100 passengers before they're "qualified" to be a first officer in a 130-160 seat aircraft. I doubt those regional passengers feel their lives are worth less.

In the U.S. there is a serious deficiency in the efficient and effective distribution of experience among pilot jobs.

In China, one of the fastest growing segments of the worldwide aviation market a captain is a captain regardless of what he or she flies (yes they have rare female pilots in China). A regional jet captain can make as much and sometimes more than a captain of a much larger aircraft. In fact, the heavy long haul aircraft often don't pay as well as smaller jets. Itís compensation for working a tougher job. Airlines will often recruit captains and first officers from other carriers directly into the seat. Co-pilots have no concept of seniority because they know they won't upgrade until they have at least 3000 or so hours and have completed a very regimented and incremental process of upgrade over many years. Of course the demand is so high they don't ever worry about not upgrading due to a lack of jobs and that may change eventually.

Interestingly enough, there are far fewer regional jet aircraft in China because they have to pay their pilots competitive salaries. Thatís what I meant about the economies of scale dilemma in the U.S.

They're all entry level when they start out as second officers and observers in China because there is no other way for them to build time in those countries. Americans shouldn't complain about that unless we want them to come over here and take our entry level instructor and banner towing jobs. I can see it going that way here soon with the new 1500 hour rule and the decline of entry level ďtime-buildingĒ GA jobs.

Keep in mind the history of regional airliners in the U.S. "Puddle jumpers," as they were once called were small piston and turboprop airlines typically carrying no more than 19 passengers with entry level pilots who built time before transitioning to the "real airlines."

Back then (more than 20 years ago) even when larger turboprops were coming into use such as ATRs, Saabs, and "Dash-8s" regionals made up 10-15% of pilot jobs in the U.S. So the prospect of flying these puddle jumpers for a few years and then going to a major before age 30 was pretty good.

Today there are hardly any puddle jumpers left and a CRJ-900 or an EMB-170 is larger than the DC-9-10 aircraft the majors used to fly back then. Not only that but regional jobs make up about half (maybe more by now) of pilot jobs in the U.S. so the odds of moving into the majors went from pretty good to 50/50. This really sucks for us. Unless you happen to be one of those senior captains who got on at the right airline at the right time (just wait until you get furloughed---don't think it can't happen).

Again, it boils down to the seniority system and our own misguided sense of entitlements creating real barriers for experienced pilots to not only find work but to compete for existing jobs while regionals are staffing with low time pilots who are using large airline jets as a training ground for the slight chance of a better job. If you have a good seniority number at a decent or not so decent carrier you are locked in to that carrier and you have no choices....no options (unless you go to China or can find a good BizJet job). I always thought in America we liked choice, free markets, open competition, and rejected entitlements.

I welcome a discussion and comments.

Last edited by lifeafteraviation; 16th Nov 2013 at 06:29.
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