NORTH OLMSTED, Ohio — After being grounded during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel has rebounded to near-pre pandemic levels in 2022. But the airline industry as a whole has endured a turbulent year marked by flight cancelations, lost luggage, and delays.
Aviation experts warn a shortage of pilots is on the horizon as many airlines report they don’t have enough pilots to fly their schedules.
“A lot has changed over the course of the pandemic. And we need to find some solutions that desperately find some solutions that increase our pilot flow in the United States,” said CommutAir CEO Rick Hoefling.
In an effort to attract and retain pilots, CommutAir, which does business out of Hopkins International Airport as United Express, has agreed with Air Line Pilots Association to increase wages and benefits.
The increase makes the carrier’s pilots among the top paid regional airline pilots in the United States.
“They have an opportunity at their choice to flow directly to United after a short period of time, maybe three or four years with our airline,” Hoefling said. “We are making sure that our flight training standards and procedures are aligned to United”
The pilot shortage took off long before the current crunch. Industry leaders say this all started more than three years ago, before the pandemic, as the global airline industry predicted a record number of passengers and the need for more planes and pilots over the next 20 years.
“We're faced now with a country that rebounded very, very quickly in terms of demand for air travel and a void that needed to be filled,” Hoefling said.
Under this new deal, new-hire pilots will make $72 per hour. This is as opposed to $51 per hour, which their previous contract amounted to. Captains will be looking at $100 per hour for their first year, up from $84.
The goal is to hopefully replenish the pipeline of pilots in the regional airlines that have been getting plucked by the major carriers to fill the void.
“When you start pulling pilots into regional airlines, that starts affecting small cities across America. And 60% of the airports in the United States are served only by regional airlines,” Hoefling said.
Last year, United Airlines started teaching the first students at United Aviate Academy, its new flight school in Arizona. This year, the airline announced it will spend $100 million expanding another pilot training location in Denver.
Becoming a certified pilot requires 250 flight hours by the Federal Aviation Administration, but many major carriers require 1,000-2,000 hours to get in the cockpit.
“To become a pilot requires a lot of financial resources, resources that are not supported through federal programs or grants,” Hoefling said. “Unless you have access to those resources, it's very hard to become a pilot.”
Hoefling said smaller airports are already bearing the brunt of the shortage with carriers pulling out service in smaller cities across the country.
“The number of cities that have lost airline service, not only during the pandemic or after the pandemic, but even before the pandemic, has been shrinking for a very, very long period of time,” Hoefling said. “If we knew that things were going to rebound as fast as they did, we probably would have made different choices in the industry.”
CommutAir also announced retention and sign-on bonuses. First officers get up to $25,000, while Captains will be paid up to $50,000 for the full duration of the contract.
The bonuses will be paid out in monthly installments.