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Why Airlines Struggle to Keep Captains

A shortage of captains has an effect on the entire industry.

A Japan Airlines flight departs from Seattle (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, the travel industry was among the hardest hit. Suddenly, drastic travel restrictions meant that demand for commercial air travel, cruises, hotels, and more disappeared virtually overnight.

Original estimates predicted that it would take years for travel demand to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, in the first months of the pandemic, the most ambitious estimates indicated that demand would start in 2023. Others projected it might take an additional year or two on top of that.

Airlines responded promptly. Hundreds of airplanes were grounded per airline, amounting to thousands in the United States alone. If American Airlines, the largest airline in the world by fleet size, had grounded a number of airplanes proportional to the drop in demand, they alone would have grounded somewhere between 800 and 900 airplanes; arguably the only thing preventing such a unilateral drop was passenger airlines’ shift to operating cargo flights with their planes to meet the high demand for shipments of medical equipment.

Views above a crowded Pinal Airport with stored jets due to COVID-19. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

Pictures soon arose of airports where dozens of planes were parked in orderly rows on what would have otherwise been active runways and taxiways, not to be used for over a year. Stories arose of commercial flights with half a dozen people flying on planes built and configured for nearly 200, and some airlines made up the difference by flying fewer flights and blocking middle seats for passenger comfort.

Flight crews also faced challenges. Pilots, flight attendants, and ground service personnel were initially furloughed en masse, eventually able to receive a paycheck because of multiple government bailouts through the CARES Acts.

An American Airlines 737 MAX taxis at LaGuardia. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Still, airlines did not stop trying to find ways to cut their personnel costs, and the cheapest solution they found, considering how long experts estimated the travel downturn would last, was to offer older pilots within a few years of retirement age early retirement packages. After all, some of these pilots would retire before travel would (as estimated) return, so it was beneficial for them to take extra compensation immediately and for the airlines, who would have fewer senior pilots at the top of the pay scale.

That staffing solution was a reasonable idea at the time; all things considered, it was the best thing airlines could do to protect their bottom lines as they prepared for what had all the indications of being a years-long hibernation. For a while, it worked, and, in time, airlines managed to stabilize their situations as best as possible.

Post-Pandemic Travel Rebound

However, in late 2021, something remarkable happened. About two years after the COVID-19 virus was first identified in China, passenger throughput data started trending upward. At first, it was a slow trend. In October 2021, TSA screened 1 million passengers in a day – still a far cry from the 2.5 to 3 million they’d screen every day in 2019, but also the first time more than 1 million passengers flew since US lockdowns began in March 2020.

Data fluctuated up and down around the magical seven-figure mark, but the overall upward trend was undeniable. As time progressed, the industry passed other milestones: airlines arose from financial challenges, airplanes returned to service, routes were reintroduced, and even international travel started to show signs of life again.

A Delta Airlines Airbus A320 in Boston. (Photo: AirliineGeeks | William Derrickson)

And, before anyone could blink, those positive trends started to snowball, and flying returned more rapidly. Soon, every parked airplane was brought back into service. More airplanes were brought out of storage in desert boneyards. But as much as the capacity for travel increased, it still felt one step behind the demand. People wanted to travel so much that airlines even brought back the jumbo jets – the Airbus A380s and Boeing 747s – that they had so recently planned to retire for good.

Airlines have been able to handle aircraft returns to service just fine. What they haven’t been able to plan for quite as well is their staffing.

The Source of Captain Shortages

Remember that the first types of pilots to receive voluntary retirement packages were older pilots. An overwhelming majority of those pilots were captains; they were people who had spent decades building their skills and had reached the epitome of seniority and experience.

Fairly obviously, flights cannot operate without captains. These captains legally serve a role known as the “pilot in command” (PIC). The PIC is responsible for and the ultimate authority on the safe operation of a particular aircraft. It is their job to oversee the flight to make sure that everything is in order. They make countless decisions to determine that the airplane is airworthy and is capable of making a particular flight safely; that any mechanical discrepancies identified on the ground or in flight are appropriately dealt with; that the routing received from air traffic control is acceptable; and so many other things to make sure that the flight is completed safely and any necessary actions are taken to ensure that safety.

Captain Eligibility

The problem for airlines is that not just anyone can be an airline captain at a major air carrier. Even after a pilot becomes eligible for the license that permits them to fly for these major airlines (which itself requires 1,500 hours and a splattering of other requirements regarding cross country, night, and instrument flight), they need over 1,000 hours as an airline pilot at a major carrier before they can even be considered for a captain position.

“You can’t fly with two first officers,” aviation consultant Robert Mann told Reuters. “You have to have a captain.”

In order to fill the captain positions that were vacated by pilots taking early retirement packages, mainline airlines such as American, Delta, and United needed thousands of captain-qualified first officers (FOs) to upgrade to captain as soon as possible. Many first officers jumped at that chance.

But not every qualified first officer jumped at the opportunity. Some first officers had spent years as second-in-command on a particular fleet type and built up incredible seniority as a first officer. As they neared the end of their careers, these pilots did not want to sacrifice the control they had over their schedules as senior FOs to spend the end of their careers at the bottom of the captain seniority list.

“If I did that, I would’ve ended up divorced and seeing my kids every other weekend,” one United pilot told Reuters, referring to upgrading to the left seat.

Mainline Captain Shortages

This created an issue for major airlines. As quickly as they could upgrade qualified and willing FOs, they still struggled to fill all of the captain vacancies they had. Not only had many captains retired during the pandemic, still more were reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 and were forced to retire during the travel bounceback. A vicious cycle had begun to make it highly difficult for airlines to fly.

In 2022, for example, United Airlines was unable to fill 50% of its captain vacancies due to FOs’ reluctance to upgrade, amounting to nearly 1,000 captain positions that need to be filled. The same is true in 2023, as in June, the carrier reported that 96 of 198 captain vacancies were still vacant.

“It’s the first time that I’ve ever known it to happen in the airline industry. It is going to impact capacity in the fourth quarter,” CEO Scott Kirby said on an earnings call over the summer.

The airline has 5,900 captains and 7,500 first officers, per its union.

7,000 American Airlines pilots have declined upgrades, per union data obtained by Reuters. American’s union represents over 15,000 pilots.

Mainline vs. Regional Airlines

However, major airlines have one big advantage. To understand it, it’s important to understand the difference between a “mainline” airline and a regional carrier. If a route does not have enough demand to support regular flights from 150- to 200-seat jets, or if it’s worth it to an airline to fly smaller jets more often on a route to maintain competitively flexible schedules, a carrier will outsource to a regional airline to operate those smaller jets.

Only a certain selection of airlines in the U.S. rely on regional carriers. American, Delta, and United are the most visible. Any flight that is branded as “American Eagle,” “Delta Connection,” or “United Express” is operated by a third-party regional operator instead of the main airline. Alaska Airlines also uses regional carriers, though with slightly different brandings: its regional partners fly aircraft that bear both Alaska’s name and the regional’s, such as “Alaska Skywest” for the independent, national regional brand or “Alaska Horizon” for flights operated by wholly-owned subsidiary Horizon Airlines.

Using these regional operators allows major airlines to remain competitive without needing to pay for hundreds of extra planes. Instead, they pay regionals a certain fee per departure, and the regionals handle their own staffing and buy or lease their own aircraft.

An Alaska Airlines E-175 operated by Horizon Air at Paine Field. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

Notably, during the pandemic, major airlines reduced the number of regional partners they worked with for this reason; for instance, ExpressJet stopped operating for months after United Airlines cut its contract in favor of another regional partner.

For many reasons, regional airlines are a fascinating case study in airline flying. How pilots view these regional carriers is one of those. With the exception of SkyWest, which operates in all but a handful of U.S. states, regional carriers are called such because they operate within a specific region of the country. With limited exception, Republic Airways operates almost exclusively east of the Mississippi River; CommuteAir, which beat out ExpressJet for United’s business, operates a few routes in the Midwest, Texas, eastern Canada, and the western U.S.; Horizon Air operates only on the West Coast.

A SkyWest CRJ-700 departing Vail. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

This regionality makes these carriers a great option for pilots who want to be able to stay closer to home throughout their careers. However, many more pilots use regional airlines as a stepping stone to make them attractive applicants for major airlines. With time flying multi-engine jets at big, busy airports in an airline environment, they can make themselves viable for further career opportunities at the mainline carriers.

The regionals faced the same challenges with more senior captains retiring early during the pandemic and needed first officers to upgrade to the captain position as soon as they were qualified to maintain smooth operations.

“And from a regional perspective, it’s really not a pilot supply issue at this point. It’s more of an issue of having first officers with the amount of time, the thousand hours that they need to graduate from the right seat to the left seat,” American Airlines Group CEO Robert Isom said during a Q3 2023 earnings call last week. He added that American itself isn’t seeing issues with filling captain vacancies, but noted struggles on the regional side. Unlike its competitors, American has three wholly-owned regional subsidiaries, including PSA, Piedmont, and Envoy.

The Captain Shortage at Regional Airlines

However, the regional airlines had an additional pressure. While mainline companies mainly worried about losing pilots to retirement, regionals also had to worry about losing pilots who got jobs at the mainline airlines. And these new hires were not limited only to the big three; regional pilots also leave for low-cost airlines like Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier.

As mainline companies lost first officers to captain upgrades, they suddenly found themselves in desperate need of new first officers to fill the second seat in the cockpit. These new first officers came overwhelmingly from the regional airlines, whether or not they were captains themselves.

Thus, regional airlines found themselves in the same predicament that mainline airlines did: in desperate need of captains and trying as hard as possible to convince first officers to make the switch. There is an additional challenge for them, though. Due to their experience at regionals, new pilots at mainline airlines often meet the legal experience requirements to be captains. As they build experience in a new airplane type with their new employer, they are legally eligible for a captain upgrade as soon as they are senior enough as first officers for the new airline to make the option available.

A Trans States Airlines Embraer ERJ145 approaching Denver. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Regional airlines do not have that benefit. Many of their new hires are eligible to be airline pilots after spending years as flight instructors, aerial survey pilots, or flying for private aircraft owners. These new airline pilots need to fly 1,000 hours at their airline before the company can even think about upgrading them. As captains disappeared to new, better-paying airlines and new pilots came in with no captain-qualifying experience, regional airlines found themselves in a bit of a catch-22: they can’t fill their captain vacancies without qualified first officers, but they can’t get their first officers to be qualified because there are not enough captains to operate the flights that will get those first officers their experience.

Regional Airlines’ Response

While it is easy for mainline carriers to hire first officers that will be ready to upgrade soon – they are, after all, career-destination companies with thousands of applicants from a wide variety of regional, low-cost, and charter airlines – regionals do not have that benefit. They have such an imbalance of captains to first officers that they have been forced to cut upwards of 20% of their schedules to prevent mass flight cancellations. This has brought service losses at a significant number of smaller airports.

Regional carriers have offered signing bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars to pilots who get hired directly as captains. This might be attractive to charter pilots looking to switch to airline flying. Certain types of charter experience meets the 1,000-hour captain experience requirement, and pilots might be attracted to an opportunity where they can build PIC time – such experience is itself very valuable – in multiengine jet aircraft, making them all the more qualified for management jobs (as a line check airman or chief pilot) or a position at a mainline carrier.

Industry-Wide Response

Steps have been taken, of course, to try to remedy these problems. Delta Air Lines announced a major update to its pilot contract in the spring, forcing United Airlines to follow suit over the summer. American Airlines introduced their own contract soon after. Officials say these deals will go a long way toward ensuring the mainline carriers are sufficiently staffed with captains moving forward, though it has yet to be seen how effective the new deals will really be.

Particularly, airlines hope that updates to work/life balance in these new contracts will be strong incentives for pilots to move to the left seat. As previously mentioned, the loss of seniority after a captain upgrade can be a significant turnoff for senior first officers who want to spend time with their families and avoid forced assignments.

“Junior captains are faced with amplified uncertainties in their flight schedules, on-call commitments, and sudden assignments, translating to reduced stability,” says Jainita Hogervorst, Director of Aerviva Aviation Consultancy, a Dubai-based aviation recruitment consultancy.

“Such uncertainty in scheduling might trickle down to other issues, such as unsatisfactory work-life balance,” Hogervorst continued. “The evolving work-life balance landscape and societal attitudes towards career encourage a shift in working people’s attitude, pilots included.”

A SkyWest Embraer E175 in Las Vegas. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

There have also been attempts to lower the minimum experience requirements for new airline pilots and raise the pilot retirement age, both by the federal government and individual airlines themselves. These calls have brought an outcry from flight crews, but their fates have yet to be determined.

“We can hire first officers. I think almost every regional airline right now has a stack of first officers,” CommuteAir CEO Rick Hoefling told AirlineGeeks at the unveiling of the regional carrier’s first Embraer E170 jet last week. “The problem is building their time at the same time you’re attriting out captains at a pretty high rate in the industry.”

“We went from a pilot shortage to a captain shortage now in the industry. So the pendulum is starting to move,” Hoefling added.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates a need for over 350,000 pilots by 2026 to sustain operations and fill captain slots around the world; consultancy firm Oliver Wyman estimates global aviation will be short 80,000 pilots by 2032. This comes after U.S. airlines are on track for record hiring numbers in 2023.

The massive shortage has been a benefit for aspiring pilots, and there has been a significant uptick in new student pilots as well as pilot certificates issued in recent years. The FAA issued thousands of commercial pilot certificates in 2022, and while some of those pilots will return to foreign markets for jobs, the additional pilots will be able to ease some of the burdens that airlines are facing.

John McDermott

Author

  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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