We all remember January 15th, 2009. A US Airways regional flight, 1549, with 150 passengers and 5 crew, departed LaGuardia Airport in New York for Charlotte Douglas Airport in North Carolina. Moments into that flight, and at an altitude of less than 3,000 feet, 1549 hit a flock of Canadian geese and lost both engines. The crew who safely landed that Airbus on the Hudson River were Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, a former military pilot and Jeffery Skiles. Both of whom had over 20,000 hours of flight time.
Fast forward over 12 years later and sadly these types of experienced commercial pilots are disappearing from commercial regional markets at an alarming rate due to early retirement offers, as well as a commercial pilot shortage that has led to FAA waivers for less experienced pilots. Meanwhile, many experienced commercial pilots have started new careers as private pilots.
If you think of the big US carriers as a baseball team, the regional routes are like the minor leagues. A place where young pilots go to cut their teeth under the tutelage of someone more experienced, waiting for a call up to the majors. It has always been a system that worked to produce a constant flow of qualified cockpit crews. But during the height of the pandemic, airline executives got the, maybe not so bright idea, to offer lucrative retirement packages to their employees, including pilots. Obviously, many airmen and women jumped at the chance to take the money and run. This begs the question, were these executives not thinking about their post-pandemic business?
CBS4 Denver ran a story with the following headline: MSU Denver Pilot Program Authorized to Reduce Required Flight Hours. The story goes on to state that Metropolitan State University of Denver has received an FAA waiver, called an ATP-R waiver, allowing some students to move up to the minor leagues of flying, as a first officer, with only 1,000 hours of flight time under their belts instead of normal 1,500 hours. A second tier of students, who don’t complete the required credits in time, can move up at 1,250 hours. To put that 500-hour difference into perspective, it would normally take 2 to 3 years for a pilot to accumulate that much time. Now, I’m sure MSU, and other flight training schools that have already received the waiver, are fine Universities with superb students, but I used to lose sleep giving my college age children the keys to the car when they were home on break. I can’t imagine tossing them the keys to the plane and having to remind them about “no making out in coach”!
All this being said, we’ve still yet to address the jumbo jet in the room. What were the airline executives thinking when they offered these retirement packages to their most experienced pilots? It’s safe to assume that those who took the package were replaced by the most experienced regional pilots. Which makes it a safe assumption that lesser experienced regional captains are now training lesser experienced first officers. All of this at a time when Delta, American and United are looking to hire 3,800 new pilots by 2022.
Now, before you go out and purchase an RV or decide to take to the rails, take solace knowing that Flewber has entered the regional market at the perfect time and only uses FAA certified Part 135 partner airlines. None of which have or will ever receive such regulatory leeway. FAA waivers aren’t given to Air Taxi Part 135 operators so the pilots are all experienced. The commercial carrier’s loss is private aviation’s gain – as many retired aviators move to private on demand carriers.