Report blames low wages for regional airlines’ woes

WASHINGTON — Regional airlines are having trouble hiring enough pilots, and a government report says one reason may be they simply don’t pay enough.

A pool of qualified pilots is available, but it’s unclear whether they are willing to work for entry-level wages, a Government Accountability Office report said.

One economic indicator supports the emergence of a pilot shortage. Regional airlines have pointed to that as a reason for limiting service to small communities. But two other indicators suggest the opposite is true, the GAO report said.

Also, two studies reviewed by the GAO “point to the large number of qualified pilots that exist, but may be working abroad, in the military or in another occupation, as evidence that there is adequate supply.”

The U.S. airline industry will need to hire 1,900 to 4,500 new pilots annually over the next 10 years because of pilots retiring at age 65 and increased demand for air travel, the report said.

Eleven of 12 regional airlines failed to meet their hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year, the report said. But no major airlines had trouble finding pilots.

Regional carriers account for about half of all domestic airline flights. One concern is that communities served only by regional airlines will see their service reduce or eliminated. Five regional airlines told GAO they are already limiting service because of a pilot shortage.

The average starting salary for first officers, also called co-pilots, at regional airlines is $22,400 a year, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

Earlier this month, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines ended service in a handful of small towns, citing a dearth of qualified pilots. The pilots association says Great Lakes pays newly hired first officers $16,500 a year.

There are 66,000 pilots working for U.S. airlines, but there are 109,465 active pilots with a first-class medical certificate who are licensed to fly airline passengers, the report said. An additional 100,000-plus pilots with commercial licenses might at some point choose to pursue an airline career, the report said

The unemployment rate for professional pilots is only 2.7 percent. That would normally indicate a shortage, but that may not be the case, GAO said.

Average professional pilot salaries went down 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2012, while the number of pilots employed went up 12 percent. Both trends are inconsistent with a shortage, the report said.

At the same time, pilot qualifications have been ramped up. Both captains and first officers need at least 1,500 hours of flying experience, although there are some exceptions. First officers used to need just 250 hours.

The average new pilot at 14 regional airlines is paid about $24 per hour for the first year of employment, GAO said. Hourly wages increase for the second year on the job for first officers to about $30.

The average hourly pay for first officers at a major carrier is $48.

Classroom work and flight training in a four-year program to qualify for commercial flying can cost well in excess of $100,000.