There has been talk of a “looming” pilot shortage in the US for several years, but the CEO of the country’s largest regional airline has starkly stated the pilot supply crisis is about to become serious, potentially leading to a significant loss of air service in smaller markets across the US.  

SkyWest Inc. president and CEO Chip Childs warned Congress in March of a “growing pilot shortage” that could become pronounced over the next three years, leading to the grounding of large numbers of aircraft in US regional airlines’ fleets. Childs and those warning of the ramifications of a pilot shortage say two realities are about to collide: Some 18,000 pilots are expected to retire at US mainline airlines in the next three years. And the pilot supply pipeline continues to struggle to produce qualified candidates because of the growing cost of becoming an airline pilot—exacerbated by the Congressionally mandated rule imposed by FAA in 2013 requiring 1,500 hr. of flight time before becoming a first officer at a US commercial airline.

Testifying in March at a House of Representatives hearing, Childs said Utah-based SkyWest, the parent of SkyWest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines, has been able to maintain adequate pilot hiring levels so far. But he said smaller regional airlines are having increasing difficulty finding qualified pilots and the shortage will likely soon begin to affect SkyWest.

“All of us [in the US regional airline industry] see a very significant pilot shortage,” he said. “We’re deeply concerned about the statistics as we move forward over the next three years. There are a lot of retirements at the majors, and we simply don’t have the backfill.”

Childs noted the 18,000 pilots US majors will need to hire represents nearly the size of the current regional airline pilot workforce, and the majors primarily hire pilots from the regionals. He said the shortfall in pilots could ultimately lead to the parking of as much as two-thirds of the US regional airline fleet in operation today.

That would create a big loss in service to smaller US markets, Childs said, adding, “We are the only source of [air] travel at 60% of the airports that we serve.”

The shortage could have knock-on effects for domestic US air cargo operations, said Stan Bernstein, the president of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA). 

RACCA represents US airlines that operate about 800 smaller cargo aircraft providing feed to FedEx, United Parcel Service and DHL in the US market. The pilot shortage “goes far beyond the regional passenger airlines,” Bernstein told ATW. “We traditionally have been one of the first stepping stones for pilots. We’ve seen pilots come to our carriers for 2-4 years and then move on to Southwest or United. Now what we’re seeing is a drying up of the flying pool … We’re right on the edge of what appears to be the beginning of a very serious pilot shortage.”

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has long pushed back against the notion of a pilot shortage. The union acknowledges the number of retirements coming at US majors, but it argues that airline cockpits will be full as long as carriers, particularly regionals, offer flight deck crew high enough compensation and provide a quality work environment. 

“We don’t believe there is a current shortage,” Paul Ryder, a captain at ExpressJet and ALPA’s national resource coordinator, told ATW. He noted that Childs said SkyWest was not currently having a problem hiring enough pilots. “You have the CEO of the largest regional carrier in the [US] acknowledging that they don’t have a problem now,” Ryder said. 

Routes operated by regional carriers to smaller markets are dropped mostly because of “business decisions”—the route is not profitable—not because there are too few pilots, Ryder said. 

Childs said there has been a “tremendous move and shift [to higher] compensation in the last few years” for pilots at US regional airlines. Ryder said that was true and demonstrates the industry is moving in the right direction to avoid a shortage. 

“I feel confident that if the industry continues on the track [of paying pilots more], we’re going to avoid any pilot-supply related issue,” he explained.

Asked by a House member about expanding service to rural areas in the US, Childs said, “The reality is if there are not enough pilots … [and] you’re trying to get new service—that is not going to happen unless we resolve this.”