Opinion: Why Unions Do Not Want To Tackle The Pilot Shortage

pilot at flight controls
Credit: Cavan Images/Alamy Stock Photo

If U.S. legislators continue to ignore the commercial pilot shortage and do not support common sense solutions to fill an empty pipeline, they will have no one to blame but themselves for the consequences. Inaction will disenfranchise constituents from the air transportation grid, dampen the sector’s competitive intensity and undermine an industry that has long been an economic generator.

Our industry’s labor shortfall has big implications for both consumers and competition. Yesterday’s news was that consumers in small communities would lose airline services. Tomorrow’s news is that the pilot shortage will undermine the ability of low-cost (LCC) and ultra-low-cost (ULCC) carriers to grow. Low fares may never arrive in many communities if there are no pilots. At stake is how the post-pandemic air transport industry will evolve, restore its competitive vigor and maximize choices for passengers.

Failure to act helps organized labor protect the significant wage and benefit gains won before the pandemic. Dampened competition will do that. As the only stakeholder not accepting that there is a shortage, pilot labor is unabashedly leveraging a very real pilot demand/supply imbalance for its benefit.

In the 2000s, lower costs enabled LCCs/ULCCs to grow and grab market share from incumbents. But competition for labor could swing that advantage back to first-mover airlines that can offer the best contract terms to retain pilots and attract newly trained aviators to backfill retirements and support their growth. LCCs/ULCCs will have a more difficult task convincing a new pilot that they offer a better career path than a network carrier or a cargo operator.

Organized labor knows this. Here is what the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) recently posted on LinkedIn: “Pilots are leaving a job at Spirit [Airlines] for a career at Delta [Air Lines], United [Airlines] and American [Airlines]. Already this year, Spirit has lost more pilots than in any other full year on record to carriers where the pay, work rules, benefits and respect are superior.” Is ALPA suggesting that piloting is just a job at one carrier it represents but a career at another?

It is no surprise that ALPA is touting the virtues of contracts with better provisions. As an institution, the union’s dues are based on pay rates at the carriers they represent. The pilot salaries ALPA has negotiated at Spirit and three other ULCCs, as well as the eight regional carriers they represent, are less than those at the Big Three U.S. airlines.

Unions repeatedly point to poor airline management decisions, like those that accelerated too many retirements and other voluntary leaves when the COVID-19 crisis hit and its ultimate impact was unknown. On May 6, ALPA President Joe DePete wrote the heads of Airlines for America, the Regional Airline Association (RAA) and the National Air Carrier Association “to urge you to stop the spread of misinformation about the availability of airline pilots and assist your members in properly managing the multibillion-dollar federal aid package that American taxpayers provided the airlines.”

This comes from the same union that is required to negotiate moves by airlines to slim down their workforces at any time. In the same letter, ALPA said it is prepared to collaborate with anyone who comes to the table in good faith to help our industry navigate this challenging period. But heaven help any stakeholder that might suggest that a demand/supply imbalance exists or has the audacity to propose new ways of pilot training.

Common sense solutions for Congress to consider have been offered. A decade ago, pilot labor said increased wages and benefits would alleviate the shortage. They have not. Obtaining a commercial pilot’s license is much too expensive for most prospective aviators, particularly minorities and the disadvantaged.

Congress could make student loans or grants applicable to flight training academies. Mesa Airlines CEO Jonathan Ornstein suggests that hours spent in simulator training are 10 times more valuable than what is accepted as training hours today. Republic Airways and the RAA have put forth more advanced alternatives as well. ALPA and others maintain that these would dilute the FAA rule requiring pilots to have at least 1,500 flight hours before they can fly a commercial airliner.

Does pilot labor really believe its stand for safety exceeds that of an industry that sells safety every day?

In the name of safety, keep pulling those banners up and down the beach.

William Swelbar is chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy in Potomac Falls, Virginia.


Still with these anti-union rants Mr. Swelbar, after all these years? It’s amazing to me, Mr. Swelbar that you of all people are asking Congress for help with a problem you yourself had a part in creating. There is a reason for today’s pilot shortage and I have an alternative argument for one of the main reasons for this shortage....it was people like Mr. Swelbar and the anti-union, anti-pilot management teams that existed in the early 2000s and continued into the 2010s that are largely responsible for what is happening right now with our “pilot shortage,” in my opinion. Hear me out please……

I argue that there is a “lost generation” of pilots that is causing the current pilot shortage. When I came into the industry in the mid-1990s, we were just about to start heading into the most difficult years and adjustments the airline industry would ever experience. There was the rise of the internet and the low cost carriers like Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran and the likes. The was the rise of the regional jet, with guys like Ornstein at Mesa and Bedford at Republic (among others) experiencing exponential growth at their airlines.

And with the growth of these airlines came the extreme abuse of the airline pilot. Managers like Ornstein started “whipsaw” operations like Freedom Air to drive pilot wages down and get around Mesa’s pilot contracts, infuriating its pilots. Guys like Bedford sent quasi-religious, belittling letters out to his pilots, demeaning them in my opinion and the opinion of the pilots that were working there at the time. American Eagle forced its pilots to take huge pay cuts in bankruptcy, and then AGAIN when they exited bankruptcy. TransState Airline’s CEO once set a letter to its low paid pilots stating that if they didn’t accept pay cuts, they’d liquidate the airline. Regional airlines took GREAT advantage of their pilot staff, paying them wages that would make a fast food manager blush. The running joke at the time? What’s the difference between a large pizza and a regional airline pilot? Answer: The large pizza can feed a family of four.

Let’s get into what was happening concurrently at the major airlines…….They all went into bankruptcy! During that time, management teams gleefully (literally) forced draconian pay cuts upon their pilot ranks. Pilots lost their pensions. Had their quality of life destroyed. There were huge layoffs. There were demotions from Captain to First Officer. From First Officer to Flight Engineer. From Flight Engineer to the streets. There were resultant divorces. Sadly, there were suicides. There was little sympathy for the airline pilot.

And then we had blogs like Mr. Swelbar’s. Very anti-union in my opinion. Very anti-pilot. Remember Swelbog Mr. Swelbar? I do. You know why I remember it? Because I used to quote it ALL THE TIME. I myself, had a blog and was very active in many aviation forums and in the local aviation community- my blog and my many internet forum posts were read by many aspiring pilots as that was what many of my posts and narratives were geared towards. I can’t tell you how many young pilots I talked to back then. Don’t get me wrong- I never discouraged anyone from becoming a pilot. I just told them how it was. One of the things I told them was that airline management “community” at the time was VERY anti-pilot. And I’d illustrate my point with not only the copies of the demeaning letters from Bedford and examples like whipsaw operations like Freedom Air and TSA’s GoJet, but also with quotes directly from your very own blog, Mr. Swelbar. Multiply all the people a “little” guy like me talked to times the thousands upon thousands of airline pilots out there. Congratuations Mr. Swelbar. You and your ilk reaped what you sowed 20 years ago…..and now you want Congress to bail you out?

It’s no coincidence that at this 20 year point from the beginning of the collapse of the piloting profession that there are no pilots to be found. Did you ever think why? It’s not because of ALPA or unions or the high cost of training (flight training has always been expensive, that’s nothing new). It’s because of a lost generation of pilots. Those of us who experienced what started happening 20 years ago had children, for example. Do you think the twice furloughed United Airlines pilot was recommending an aviation career to his kids? To the young people he talked to? How about the pilot that lost her pension at American? Do you think she was like, “Yeah, awesome career! You need to go to Embry-Riddle and become a pilot!” Do you think the regional airline pilot at Mesa or TSA who lost the ability to upgrade to a larger 70 seat jet (and more pay) was recommending a pilot career when Ornstein set up Freedom Air? When TransStates Airlines set up GoJets?

So here we are, 20 years later…..that “generation” I was talking about. All those young people over the past 20 years that would have been today’s pilots? They’re doing something else. They are accountants. They are engineers. They are computer science majors. They are NOT pilots. They are pursing careers where their skills and intellect would be better appreciated. Where their management teams would treat them with respect. Where industry analysts, such as yourself Mr. Swelbar, aren’t attacking them or their unions.

Mr. Swelbar, don’t blame ALPA or unions or the high cost of training or anyone or anything else like you do in this article. Don’t ask Congress for help with the problem you and your ilk created. If you want to see the cause of today’s pilot shortage, just take a look in the mirror. Oh and, break out the checkbook. It’s going to cost a lot of money to undo the mess of this pilot profession created by you and your yesteryear peers.

Reason for pilot shortage
To put it simply, Steve Braxton hit the nail on the head, you have reaped what you sewed, you want government to fix what you participated in creating. We have long memories.
Hear hear, SteveBrazao.
Hear hear, SteveBrazao.
The current pilot shortage is a classic supply and demand problem. The demand has increased, but the supply is constrained by a generation of pilot abuse characterized by insufficient pay, onerous work rules, and over-scheduling by airline managements.

A handful of short-sighted airline managements today seek congressional relief in the form of relaxing crew flight time and duty limitations, and more importantly, minimum training and experience standards. The current duty limit and experience requirements were written in the blood of accident victims in the years just prior to the adoption of the current standards. The persistent position of all the pilots’ unions, whose primary focus is safety, is that there are no good reasons to relax the standards now, and many more reasons to insist that they are maintained.

On June 10 Envoy Airlines, an American Airlines wholly owned regional subsidiary, announced new, much higher rates of pay, starting at $90 per hour for new-hire pilots ($100K a year). This higher starting salary transforms the student loan cost of $90K for ab-initio pilot training from a burdensome debt into something that can be repaid in just a few years. It will attract thousands of prospective pilots to the airline flight academies sprouting up all over the country.

Lowering experience standards or relaxing duty and rest limits will not. In May, Republic Airways asked the Department of Transportation to relax experience requirements for its LIFT Academy graduates to align with standards currently applicable only to military pilots. Unlike civilian pilots, military pilots not only meet far higher physical standards, but they also receive the best training the taxpayer can buy, to include advanced academics in aerodynamics, aerobatics, physiology, and high-altitude pressure chamber training. The military also disenrolls trainees at the first sign of an inability to complete its rigorous syllabus. Military training has a historic attrition rate of more than 30%, despite comprehensive pre-screening. Ab-initio civil rates are half that, precisely because the admission standards are lower, the training is less rigorous, and flight schools are financially incentivized to continue training attempts if the student pilot continues to pay (and borrow).

Experience can mitigate training quality discrepancies. Demanding 1250 to 1500 hours experience, instead of the 750-hour military requirement ensures that new airline pilots will perform as expected. We have tried lower standards in the past. The accident rates these lower standards produced led the traveling public, and especially the families of accident fatalities, to demand higher standards. As it should be. As the pilots' unions insist.

You get what you pay for. “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930's.