Small regional airports could bear the brunt of changes in the aviation industry.
The reason: A projected pilot shortage is only expected to intensify over the next decade.
While airports around the region differ in how they think the pilot shortage will affect their facilities, experts predict wide ranging impacts from increased ticket costs and fewer flights in general to the hardest hit airports potentially shuttering their facilities altogether.
The issue is something that executives at Muskegon County Airport are following closely, even though they may not yet have experienced a decrease in traffic, said Marty Piette, the airport’s manager.
“We’re at the whim of the market,” Piette said. “It’s an airline pilot issue. If an airline makes a decision between airports, we need to make sure they choose us because we have the (passenger) numbers.”
It’s not only the airports themselves that would suffer from the loss in flights: The economic health of municipalities is tied in many ways to small community airports, said Bill Swelbar, executive vice president at InterVistas, a Canada-based consultancy that specializes in the aviation industry.
For example, Muskegon County Airport contributes approximately $55 million annually to the local economy, according to statistics shared by Piette.
However, other industry watchers believe market forces outside of the control of local airports could become a major issue for the operations going forward.
“In my mind, the law of supply and demand is about to kick in in a huge way,” said Capt. Steve Jones, director of flight operations at Western Michigan University’s (WMU) School of Aviation. “There aren’t enough pilots being created right now to fill the demand that (the airlines) know they’re going to have just by virtue of people aging out.”
Executives at both Grand Rapids-based Gerald R. Ford International Airport and
Lansing-based Capital Region International Airport acknowledge the pilot shortage is a challenge for the aviation industry, but they are confident that their size and location will minimize the impacts, according to representatives from each facility.
Currently, the impact of the pilot shortage has been limited to a handful of flight frequency cuts by smaller airlines, Swelbar said. However, by the second half of this year, regional airports will start to see increasing frequency cuts that, over the next two years, could ultimately result in closings.
“By 2017, it will be game on,” Swelbar said. “We’re still a couple of years away from the draconian things that can and will happen — it will be air service death by 1,000 frequency cuts.”
When additional aircraft are added to a large airline such as Delta or when that airline loses a captain to retirement, first officers — commonly referred to as co-pilots — are typically drafted to replace them, Jones of WMU said. Those carriers then recruit captains from their smaller regional counterparts to replace the first officers. In turn, regional carriers — which operate primarily out of smaller community airports — put their co-pilots in the captain’s seat and then often struggle to find another co-pilot.
“Regional carriers are feeling it directly now,” Jones said. “Out of pilots that the domestic market is demanding, all of the collegiate programs can put together about half of that. That gives you an idea about the order of magnitude of the problem.”
Between 2014 and 2033, demand for new commercial airline pilots in North America is projected to be 88,000 pilots — the equivalent of 4,400 new pilots annually over that period, according to data from Boeing, which publishes yearly projections based on production levels.
Global demand for pilots is projected to reach 533,000 over that same time frame, representing a 7-percent increase over 2013’s projections. Global demand has been driven largely by growth in the Asia Pacific market, according to the Boeing data.
Airlines are also transitioning away from the smaller 50-seat aircraft — the primary airplane that serves community airports — in favor of larger aircraft that are more cost effective to operate, said Swelbar of InterVistas. That’s resulted in carriers pulling additional pilots from community airports to fly the larger aircraft. Meanwhile, not all community airports can support those larger aircraft, which ultimately results in a loss of scheduled flights and market share, he added.
There are currently 462 airports operating in the contiguous U.S., Swelbar said. However, by 2025, he sees that number decreasing by 150 community airports as the frequency of flights decreases. While that does not bode well for those cities and towns that rely on their airports for commerce, it’s likely that alternative connections to the global transportation grid will be made available, he said.
“I always adhere to the saying that nature abhors a vacuum,” Swelbar said. “If there are going to be fewer airports, someone is going to solve the problem to keep the smaller communities connected to the grid. But you still have to have pilots to fly them.”
While the pilot shortage will likely cause some changes to the industry, local educational institutions and other for-profit organizations are working to find a solution.
One of the main barriers to hiring additional pilots stems from new qualification standards enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2013, Jones said. The new standard requires co-pilots to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, which mandates 1,500 hours of flight time before being employed by an airline. Previously, co-pilots had to obtain a commercial pilot certificate, which only required 250 hours of flight time.
While WMU has an authorization from the FAA that allows its graduates to earn an ATP with 1,000 hours through the courses they complete, students often need to fill the remaining hours after graduation, Jones said.
“You still have four times the amount of hours required than what it used to take to put someone in the right seat of a carrier,” he said.
To help solve the pilot shortage, Jones advocates for legislation that recognizes quality training programs over the number of hours required to earn an ATP.
“I don’t think that any number of hours by itself are meaningful in this regard,” Jones said. “I recognize the need for good training and safe crew. If you make a program that is rich and uses a lot of the techniques that the airlines and military have proven to work, you can graduate someone who can safely sit in that right seat.”
Some industry groups such as the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) have characterized the pilot shortage as a factor of the meager starting pay rather than as a labor issue. “There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay and benefits,” said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the ALPA, in statement last year about the “myth” of a U.S. pilot shortage. He noted that “thousands” of experienced pilots are currently furloughed or working outside of the U.S., although they’re willing to return “under the right conditions.”
Estimated first-year salaries for the 10 lowest-paying airlines ranged between $14,000 and $21,000 as of July 2014, according to the ALPA.
A handful of regional carriers have raised wages to reflect the troubles in the industry, but slim margins have prompted some airlines to offer other incentives such as retention bonuses to help attract and retain pilots, Jones said.
However, raising first-year wages at regional carriers is only a small part of the solution, Swelbar said.
Regional airports are also taking the issue into their own hands by increasing marketing campaigns and encouraging their tenants to open flight schools on the ground of their airfields, sources said.
For example: While originally operating as a provider of charter and aircraft management services,Executive Air Transport Inc. plans to capitalize on the pilot shortage by offering flight training programs, according to a previous report by MiBiz. The company operates from the Muskegon County Airport and recently underwent a leadership transition.
The Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Aviation Academy also expanded its operations, adding 15,000 square feet to its school and airplane hanger and bringing its capacity to 600 students, according to a report last year in MiBiz.
But as the imminent pilot shortage threatens regional airports the most, Swelbar sees the best solution coming from federal assistance and deregulation.
“As a country, we need to step back and see if (community airports) need loans and rethink the (ATP) legislation,” Swebar said. “However, Congress isn’t going to get excited until 50 airports go dark.”