Here’s the Major Crisis the Airlines Are Facing Now

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It’s been seven years since Adam Niewood’s father, a professional musician, was killed in an airplane crash. But Niewood is still wracked with guilt. The night before the flight, his father asked him if he wanted to drive together instead. Niewood declined.

“He traveled my entire life,” says Niewood, 38. “He was gone sometimes 300 days a year. He left and he came back. And he left and he came back. And that was what I was used to. He asked me if I wanted to take a road trip with him, and had I said yes, we would have driven to Buffalo and he would have been alive.”

Niewood’s father, Gerry Niewood, was killed when Colgan Air Flight 3407 plummeted into a house just outside Buffalo, New York on a snowy February night in 2009. Some 49 other people, including all on board and one in the home, also died. Government investigators found the leading cause of the crash was the pilots’ incorrect response to an aerodynamic stall, a condition in which an airplane’s wings aren’t generating enough lift. Stalls are tricky. Like turning into a spin in a careening car, the right move is unintuitive.

Lawmakers and regulators responded to Flight 3407 by dramatically increasing the number of hours required of first officers, from 250 to 1,500. The idea was to boost safety. But the change is helping fuel a pilot shortage the airline industry continues to grapple with as well as travelers across the country.

Colgan Air, now defunct, was a regional airline. So-called “regionals” typically shuttle travelers from smaller airports to bigger ones, where they can transfer to the major carriers’ bigger airplanes and on to further destinations. Think of the air travel system like a giant network, connecting thousands of airports. For many travelers, regionals serve as a vital link to that network. There were 171 airports in the continental U.S. that were served only by regional airlines in 2014, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA), a trade group.

These regional airlines now have a big problem: many can’t find qualified people to fly their planes.

The new hourly requirements made it more expensive to become a pilot in the first place. Prospective pilots pay roughly $150,000 for the requisite training, hours and college degree. Entry-level salaries at regional carriers, a popular jumping-off point for new pilots, hover around $20,000. That difficult financial calculus is increasingly keeping would-be pilots out of the cockpit.

“At present, the problem of pilot supply is endemic throughout the regional airline industry,” said a spokesperson for the RAA in an emailed statement. “While base salaries for new hires have increased steadily (the current unweighted first year, first officer pay average has increased to $27,350) and many airlines have even offered signing and retention bonuses to attract and retain pilots, the number of qualified applicants for jobs at regional airlines remains far below demand.”

How much the pilot shortage is already affecting you depends on where you live—or where you fly. “If I’m a small community dependent on regional aircraft for access to the air transportation grid, I would give it a nine [out of 10],” says William Swelbar, executive vice president of aviation consulting firm Intervistas. Swelbar has been predicting the shortage for years. When Republic Airways, a top regional airline, filed for bankruptcy in February, it in part blamed a lack of pilots.

Swelbar and other experts say the shortage won’t hurt the major airlines right away, because they have plenty of pilots. But the regionals serve as a critical source of pilots for the majors. If that pipeline dries up, there could be a shortage.

An obvious solution: paying pilots more. “It’s incredible you can still have a job where you’re flying 50 people around and you’re responsible for their lives and you’re getting paid $20,000, with lousy hours and minimal to none in terms of benefits,” says Daniel Rose, aviation lawyer and former U.S. Navy pilot. Rose represented some of Flight 3407 victims’ families.

But Rose says there’s another force at work keeping pilots’ pay grounded. Regional airlines count on deals with the major carriers to shuttle passengers to and from smaller airports to hubs. Regionals that keep their costs down (say, by paying crew less) are better able to compete for those deals.

With little chance of pilots getting a pay boost, the aviation industry and regulators have started contemplating a more radical idea. There is mounting evidence that it’s time to reconsider whether a pilot’s total hours is representative of their skill level. One recent study called that link into serious question. “Hours can reflect experience, but they’re not a good yardstick to measure pilots’ abilities,” says Dr. Dan Macchiarella, dean of the College of Aviation Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Somebody could go tow banners for 10,000 hours and be less prepared to be a first officer than a graduate that came out of a program like ours that perhaps had 500 or 750 hours.”

As lawmakers debate new aviation rules, regional airlines have been trying to convince them it’s time to rethink the 1,500 hour requirement. But the idea will be a tough sell with passengers, many of whom are bound to feel safer with a more experienced pilot, regardless of what the academics say. “If I’m going to pay top dollar from New York City to wherever, I want to know that the person flying the aircraft actually has the experience to know how to land properly in inclement weather,” says Niewood. “Before the crash, I had a very tight, close-knit family. And now I don’t.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of airports in the continental U.S. served only by regional airlines. It is 171.

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