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June 19, 2024
ALPA vs. SkyWest - chatter about pilot shortages and safety
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The ALPA vs. SkyWest situation is interesting  – with lots of chatter about pilot shortages and safety. Some of it revolves around innovative ideas by regional airlines that could help solve the crisis.  But ALPA opposes those initiatives.  

In July 2022, ALPA opposed and criticized SkWest for the airline’s decision to start a charter business.  On June 1, 2022, SkyWest petitioned the US DoT to establish this charter business.  This charter airline would fall under the DoT’s “Part 135” public air charter certification.

A Part 135 “air taxi” operator can hire pilots with as little as 250 hours, rather than the 1,500 required for pilots at scheduled airlines that fall under Part 121.  Utilizing Part 135 regulations opens a much bigger pool of pilots to work with and train. SkyWest Charter plans on flying Mitsubishi CRJ200s with 30 seats which is the maximum allowed under Part 135, rather than the 50 seats these aircraft typically offer.

SkyWest is no small regional airline. The airline has a fleet of over 500 aircraft, of which 136 are CRJ200s.  Many of these aircraft are parked because of the pilot shortage (1,500-hour pilots) and the elimination of regional markets.  The plan is to launch with four aircraft and serve up to five cities, gradually ramping up to 18 CRJ200s serving 25 cities by April 2023. The critical mass here is tiny.

But ALPA says, “If successful, SkyWest can be expected to argue that fully qualified first officers are not necessary for small-community operations since it will use the same twin-engine jets it used under Part 121.”  ALPA goes after the airline with the blunt instrument of compromised safety: “SkyWest and Republic Airways are two peas in a pod—a very dangerous pod. They both seek to skirt critical safety rules—rules written in blood—in order to save a buck and shortchange their workers,” said Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA president. “SkyWest didn’t even pretend to address the very serious safety concerns we raised about their scheme, and Republic Airways should have its application denied simply based on the ignorance of the comments made by their CEO. Our entire aviation safety ecosystem is based on science, on facts—and the recognition that safety should always be put ahead of profit. The two companies’ petitions are based on bad faith and deceptive practices.”

That’s some vitriolic language.  And one can certainly question their “science.” Does ALPA believe that the learning path of a 250 hour pilot building hours as a Cessna 172 flight instructor is equal or better than a 250 hour pilot that undergoes an internship at a Part 135 carrier operating to Part 121 standards and training protocols?

The above-linked ALPA statement states, “Founded in 1931, ALPA is the largest airline pilot union in the world and represents more than 65,000 pilots at 40 U.S. and Canadian airlines“.  ALPA also claims: to be “the world’s largest nongovernmental aviation safety organization.”

Regarding what SkyWest Charter is offering pilots, we see the pay scale and requirements. It says quite specifically: for a Captain, “At least 1,000 hours of experience as defined by FAR 135.243 and At least 2,000 total flight hours.”  That level suggests reasonable competence and professional experience, and exceeds the 1,500 hour requirement for an ATP license.

Here is how the airline responded to ALPA. Before this, they did make some clear statements about the issues of starting a Part 135 operation. The difference in language and tone is noticeable.

Chip Childs, SkyWest’s president and CEO, told investors the DoT Part 135 application falls within the existing regulatory scope. He also said the application had strong support from the communities it sought to serve and would do so safely.  “We undoubtedly have the asset base, best fleet, high standards, and expertise to execute this operation well, and intend to hold SkyWest Charter to the exceptionally high standards of safety and service associated with the SkyWest name,” Childs said.

On the same call, Wade Steel, SkyWest’s COO, noted there would be no compromises to safety. “We intend to run it just like we run the commercial side of SkyWest as a 121 operator,” Steel said. He further said they would tap into the airline’s safety management system (SMS) and aviation safety action program (ASAP).  Regarding the accusation of using “lesser-qualified first officers,” Steel further pointed out SkyWest has a robust safety standard. “It’s important to note that over every single year [at] SkyWest airlines, we actually fail several [hundred] pilots out of our initial training courses—and they have 1,500 hours. They’re very well qualified by FAA standards, but they don’t meet the SkyWest standard., That standard for this charter operation will be the exact same standard.”

At the 2022 RAA conference, this presentation covered the pilot shortage.  This is worth watching for perspective, regardless of where you stand between SkyWest and ALPA. Of course, ALPA and other pilot unions don’t like RAA and the regional airline business. Bill Swelbar, a reputable industry expert, wrote this OpEd in Aviation Week in June 2022. He succinctly notes: “Does pilot labor really believe its stand for safety exceeds that of an industry that sells safety every day?.”

Bottom Line

  • Is SkyWest lowering its safety standards?  No, that makes no sense at all. No airline would risk its people, assets, and reputation by lowering safety standards.
  • Does ALPA have a case? It appears ALPA’s reaction is overwrought.  The focus on 1,500 hours does not speak to the quality of those hours.  Pilot unions seem to have another agenda.
  • Yes, there is a pilot shortage.  Even the US Department of Labor says so, but ALPA counters with this.  

The debate leads nowhere, it seems.  Communities lose air service and become economically disadvantaged.  When a solution is proposed to fix that, ALPA rejects it on “safety” grounds.  Who gets to make the call and cut through the chatter? Because all the chatter leads to no useful outcome.  Other than ALPA’s agenda.

author avatar
Addison Schonland
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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