In aviation news this week: there’s a pilot shortage on the horizon. Shortages mean that the pool of qualified candidates dwindles, forcing airlines to hire less qualified aviators to supplement the retirees or ‘jumpers’, those who go to a more promising career elsewhere; this jeopardizes safety. Consequently, the pilot and technician shortages have been old news for over twenty years. As a line maintenance manager for an airline, my co-managers and I were discussing what to do about the inevitable deficit in 1997; at that time, it was already a growing concern.
But how does one deal with an aviator shortage? For one, as JetBlue has, by starting a pilot training program that drafts inexperienced pilot wannabes, puts them through a rigorous training program and makes them the senior JetBlue pilots of the future. These trainees will have the advantage of guaranteed employment in what will be a highly competitive market; accruing seniority based on time-in service; and not have to worry about being called back on furlough from another airline. JetBlue will have pilots that have been trained and bred in their ‘way of business’; a loyal employee who tows the line with less possibility of being corrupted by another airline’s culture or voting with a bargaining unit for representation.
How about technicians? Several airlines have made agreements with maintenance … aka Airframe and Powerplant (A&P), schools. The company pays for all or a good portion of the A&P certification; upon graduation, the technician joins the ranks of the hosting airline. Again, the technician is trained in the airline’s culture; they become a willing and loyal advocate for the airline; and they work undeterred to make the airline successful. Loyalty to a job provider must not be underestimated. Meanwhile the technician’s loyalty helps to guarantee little to no outside interference in the airline’s continuing success.
What about the Regionals and Feeders? Aren’t they at wit’s end keeping pilots and technicians employed before losing them to the attractive wages and equipment of the larger airlines? It is my feeling that regionals are slowly becoming extinct; they will be absorbed, as were so many of the larger airlines of the ‘80s and ‘90s. American Eagle, once a regional for American Airlines, is now part of the American system. Independence Airlines tried to break free of United in 2003, trying to grow in United’s backyard at Dulles airport. Instead Independence collapsed under United’s superior presence in Dulles, folding without ever standing on its own. And just like Independence and American Eagle, the regionals will inevitably be starved out or annexed into the larger whole. Their inability to rearm with fresh pilots and technicians will only accelerate the end.
What about Feeders? In this, conditions may remain the same. Feeders, in the sense I speak of, are smaller aircraft certified under Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 Air Taxi; they can get into smaller airports that are not cost effective for the mainline airline, e.g. a cargo airline. In some cases, the Feeder aircraft are owned by the mainline, but leased back to the Part 135. The mainline carrier secures the pilots, technicians and Part 135 operator are loyal, while guaranteeing the aircraft are never wanting for anything.
The world is getting smaller; resources are limited. The bigger fish continue to swallow up the little fish. AirTran, TWA, Pan Am, Continental, Northwest, Eastern, the list goes on; a litany of big fish, many of whom didn’t know how to plan ahead to survive on their own or becoming too big and trying to survive on dwindling resources.