WASHINGTON – The Families of Continental Flight 3407 Friday called for regional airlines to boost pilot salaries in the wake of a government report that said a much-discussed “pilot shortage” may really be a shortage of aviators willing to work for less than $25,000 a year.
“What career would attract anyone that required substantial time and costs to earn a starting salary of $16,000?” said John Kausner, who lost his daughter Ellyce in the 2009 crash in Clarence Center in which the co-pilot – who earned about $16,000 a year – made critical errors. “As the report says, there are qualified pilots available now; the regionals just won’t pay a salary that would attract them.”
But the regional airline industry looked at the report issued by the Government Accountability Office and saw something completely different: an argument against a new federal requirement that pilots must have 1,500 hours of experience in the cockpit before joining a passenger airline, up from 250 hours in years past.
Calling that rule an arbitrary “quantity versus quality” standard, Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said: “RAA also predicted that it would lead to a significant loss of air service to communities large and small – but its impact has proven more immediate and significant than analysts predicted with hundreds more cities that could lose their service and thousands more lost jobs across all sectors.”
The GAO report found that 11 of 12 regional airlines contacted were having trouble hiring co-pilots under the new rule. But the government investigators also found that there are 109,465 pilots with an Air Transport Pilot license, which requires those 1,500 hours of experience, and only 66,000 pilot jobs in 2012.
“Data indicate that a large pool of qualified pilots exists relative to the projected demand, but whether such pilots are willing or available to work at wages being offered is unknown,” the GAO said.
To the Flight 3407 families and their supporters, that conclusion echoed something they have been saying for years.
“The issue of pilot wages at the regional airline level has always been the elephant in the room, and for the regional airline industry to take the next step when it comes to achieving a true ‘One Level of Safety’ with the mainline carriers, this issue must be properly addressed,” said Susan Bourque, who lost her sister, 9/11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash.
Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter Lorin in the crash, noted that the co-pilot of Flight 3407 was so poorly paid that she lived at home near Seattle even though her flight operating base was in Newark, N.J., a continent away. That’s why she spent the night before the crash on a two-stop red-eye flight from Seattle to Newark the day before the crash, which claimed 50 lives.
“Those wages did not set her up for success as she entered the cockpit of Flight 3407 and proceeded to repeatedly yawn throughout the flight, right up until the moment that she was faced with a critical split-second decision regarding the flaps,” Maurer noted.
Asked about the relatively low wages at the regional airlines, RAA spokesperson Kelly Murphy said: “Pilot pay is collectively bargained through union contracts.”
However, that is not always the case. Pilots at Colgan Air, the regional that operated Flight 3407, had joined the Air Line Pilots Association two months before the crash but were still without a contract when the crew mishandled the plane’s descent and crashed it into a home in Clarence. And SkyWest, the largest regional, is not unionized.
As for the larger airlines – which contract with the regionals to provide service on more than half of the flights in the nation – they “are not currently experiencing shortages or any difficulty in attracting well qualified candidates drawn to good pay and benefits and flexible work schedules,” Airlines for America, which represents the mainline carriers, said in a statement.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand also stressed that the GAO report focused largely on the low wages offered by the regional airlines – which, according to the report, average between $21,600 and $24,000 for a first-year copilot.
“The fact is, America has a full pilot supply that is made only stronger by these rules that strengthen their skills and training, if only they were paid a salary that allowed to them work as pilots,” said Gillibrand, D-N.Y.