The global airline industry faces a pilot shortage in the post-Covid environment. Internationally, that shortage will be short-lived, as training a new pilot from an ab-initio program to flying in the right seat takes 250-500 hours. Several training initiatives are underway, and international pilot shortages should be minimal.
The United States, the world’s largest airline market, is a different story. After legislation that increased the number of hours required for an Air Transport Rating by 500% following an accident more than a decade ago, in which both pilots had experience above those levels, the US has seen a constant state of a pilot shortage. The cost of becoming a US airline pilot is now unaffordable for most students, as building 1,500 hours in increasingly sophisticated aircraft has become economically impossible and a severe impediment to diversity. With cadets building hours as flight instructors in Cessna or Piper trainers, rather than learning to fly the right seat of more sophisticated jets, these pilots often need to lose bad habits from general aviation flying when they are finally hired and trained by airlines.
Legislation often has unintended consequences, and in this case, the old adage – if con is the opposite of pro, Congress is the opposite of progress – holds true to form. The pilot shortage has changed the balance of power in contract negotiations and enabled the unions to maintain scope clauses restricting the number of aircraft, seats, and weight of the regional aircraft.
Unfortunately, the US scope clauses have been negotiated in a vacuum, ignoring that new technology engines that are 15% more efficient weigh more than the engines they are replacing.
The result is that US regional airlines have no new technology aircraft available. They are forced to rely on older CRJs and Embraer E-175s that utilize an older generation of engines developed in the 1990s. These engines burn about 15% more fuel than today’s engines, with 15% higher carbon emissions.
Developing more efficient regional aircraft should be paramount in an era when climate change concerns are growing. Today’s US scope clauses could remain virtually the same except for weight. Allowing the same number of planes, seats, and regional lift, but with the weight restriction modified to accommodate greener technology.
Unfortunately, the major airlines negotiating pilot contracts with pilot unions won’t challenge their pilots on Scope. Pilot unions, which could contribute to rather than harm the industry’s environmental performance, are focused on their pay rates.
Just as Congress has been arbitrary and capricious in setting higher limits for pilot training, the major US carriers and the pilot unions are killing the regional market by requiring them to use higher-cost and higher-polluting older aircraft since the manufacturers cannot sell new technology aircraft that weigh slightly more.
Industry groupthink has restricted new technology regional jets and resulted in environmentally friendly airplanes being canceled, effectively, by restrictive labor agreements that are environmentally abhorrent. The aviation industry is one of the most visible and targeted industries environmentally, despite a strong track record of improvements. The pilot shortage, intransigence on scope clauses, and the effective elimination of new technology regional aircraft that could lower emissions by 15% are unfavorable for the airline and aircraft industries. We have the technology to do better without industry participants standing in the way.