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As Major Airlines Scale Back Pilot Hiring, Regional Carriers Still Face Headwinds

Regional carriers are working to 'build up some momentum' as pilot hiring trends continue to shift at U.S. airlines.

Regional aircraft at New York LaGuardia Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Even as most U.S. major airlines drastically reduce pilot hiring numbers this year, regional airlines aren’t completely out of the woods yet. Major airlines have hired nearly 40% fewer pilots in Q1 2024 compared to the same period last year, according to data from FAPA.aero.

Many regional carriers continue to shell out lucrative sign-on bonuses, mostly for direct-entry captains. In April, United Express operator GoJet announced a new bonus structure for direct-entry captains worth up to $200,000. According to the carrier, a captain could make over $400,000 in their first year.

The U.S.’s largest regional airline SkyWest offers direct-entry captains up to $40,000 in bonuses and a so-called year-for-year pay match. While a far cry from some of the signing bonuses offered in 2022 and 2023, many regional airlines remain poised to attract talent to the left seat. 

All of this comes as the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) – which represents over 77,000 pilots – has said the pilot shortage “isn’t real.” The union also represents pilots at most U.S. regional carriers.

The Regional Airline Association (RAA) and ALPA have clashed over this narrative. In its Q1 2024 report, the RAA added that changes in pilot hiring were “temporary,” attributing them to aircraft delivery delays at Airbus and Boeing. The trade group further alleges that the pilot supply/demand balance will “rapidly worsen” as deliveries get back on track.

With some airlines scaling back service to small communities coming out of the pandemic, the RAA claims they could still face the brunt of network cuts. Congress bolstered programs designed to attract and retain small community air service as part of the FAA Reauthorization Act.

“So, I think the good news is that if we got the equipment and retirements continue and the economy is strong, we could be back into a shortage situation immediately,” said Kit Darby, President of KitDarby.com Aviation Consulting, in an interview with AirlineGeeks.

Getting Back Into Balance

While captains are largely the flavor of the month at regional carriers now, Darby noted that most are likely to hire first officers again as companies work to rebalance their flight decks.

“But they should catch up and be back in balance and be able to hire [first officers] again if they’ll stop hiring their captains. And they probably have a year or two reprieve right now, which should slow down the off-the-street captains and increase the [first officer] demand,” he added.

Many pilots left regional carriers in droves to chase higher pay at the major airlines between 2021-2023. American, Delta and United set pilot hiring records during this period, But now, regional airlines have been left to catch up and rebalance their captain-to-first officer ratios.

Speaking to AirlineGeeks, GoJet President and CEO Rick Leach said, “There was a major supply and demand issue of pilots just in general, and the barrier of entry was very, very high over the years.” GoJet operates over 60 CRJ-550 aircraft on behalf of United Express.

United Express CRJ aircraft in Newark (Photo: Shutterstock)

“So we as an industry have done some things. Some people would say crazy things by many multiples of salaries that have gone up at this really crazy rate; I mean, nobody’s crystal ball would have been able to totally dictate what has happened,” Leach added. “But nonetheless, it’s done and it’s created a major return on investment that has started to get interest into the profession. And so that’s good…but there’s other symptoms that have been a result of the pilot shortage that [are] still creating problems.”

Reductions in pilot hiring at the major airlines, Leach said, is just a ‘band-aid’ for the St. Louis-based regional carrier as it tries to retain pilots in the left seat.

Bolstering Regional Flying

During Q1 2024 earnings calls, both American and Delta indicated that they plan to double down on regional productivity in the coming years. In 2022, U.S. carriers had roughly 500 regional jets grounded due to pilot supply challenges emerging from the pandemic.

“We’ve been very short on our regionals,” said Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein during the company’s earnings call. “We still have probably at least 50 regionals either not flying or underutilized, probably almost 100 when you include the underutilization.”

American expects to add between 20 and 25 fully-utilized regional aircraft each quarter in 2024, noting improvements in the pilot supply at its wholly-owned operators Envoy, PSA, and Piedmont.

In a 2023 slide deck, the RAA said that 76% of U.S. communities saw some service cuts due to regional productivity constraints.

“If we don’t start getting healthier…I think you’ll just continue to see what we’ve seen, which is some under production,” Leach continued. “But look, I think we as an industry are all very focused on doing everything we can, which is why we’re aggressive in the program that we’ve put out there to attract direct-entry captains, trying to sort of get our classes full and build up some momentum.”

Major airlines hired 2,357 pilots in Q1, which far eclipses pre-pandemic levels. During the same period in 2019, airlines hired 1,395 pilots, representing an over 50% difference.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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