Cape Air officials said Tuesday that a pilot shortage is the cause of a spate of recent flight cancellations at Billings Logan International Airport.
Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air provides $52 flights between Billings and five other Montana communities — Sidney, Glasgow, Glendive, Wolf Point and Havre. According to its online schedule, five daily flights are offered from Billings to Sidney, and two each to the other four destinations.
Trish Lorino, Cape Air’s vice president for marketing and public relations, said 16 flights have been cancelled in recent days due to the pilot shortage. The airline has brought in pilots from other markets it serves and is teaming with Jet Blue and seven universities to get pilots the hours they need to receive certification aboard Cape Air Cessna aircraft.
“We are sorry for the impact this has had on the community,” she said. “We have had some challenges here. The pilot shortage is truly a significant one — not only for Cape Air, but for all carriers. It is definitely something that has affected our completion rates.”
Lorino said she’d just completed a conference call with the company’s pilot group and others to discuss the continuing ramifications of higher co-pilot qualification standards implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration following a 2009 crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.
Ensuing rule changes designed to boost safety have increased the qualification requirements for first officers, also known as co-pilots, who now must earn an Airline Transport Pilot certificate and have logged 1,500 hours total time as a pilot.
Before the rule, announced in 2013, first officers were required to have a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time.
It can be arduous for young pilots to log that much flight time, Lorino said.
“It is truly leading to pilot attrition,” she said. “People don’t want to pursue it because it is expensive and time-consuming.”
As part of the federal government’s Essential Air Service program, Cape Air and others have been, since airline deregulation in 1978, subsidized to provide air service to what would otherwise be underserved communities.
Kevin Ploehn, the city’s aviation and transit director, said that low salaries paid by the nation’s smaller, regional carriers “are a disincentive for people to go get their (commercial pilot’s) license.”
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“Flight school might cost you $200,000, but you start at $20,000 a year,” Ploehn said.
He said Essential Air Service airlines put a premium on not cancelling their flights.
“If they are not flying, they are not getting paid the subsidy,” he said, “and that’s way more than the ticket price.”
A recent study projects more than 14,000 pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 between 2015 and 2022, Ploehn said.
“The good news is that the major airlines are making tons of money,” so they’ll be able to fill those retirements, Ploehn predicted.
“The bigs can fill those, but it’s killing the regionals,” he said. Some pilots at smaller providers, he said, will elect to move into the cockpits of the nation’s major regional airlines, including SkyWest Airlines and Republic Airways.
Cape Air flights in Montana always have a first officer on board, Lorino said.
The airline’s Gateway Program partnership with Jet Blue allows first officers to log the time they need on Cape Air flights before going on to a career at Jet Blue.
“We did it proactively,” Lorino said, “in light of the shortage coming on hard.”
In some cases, management pilots have “left their desks” to help fill the pilot gap, and some officers have been allowed to pick up extra flights on their day off, she said.
People concerned about pilot shortages should write their congress member, Lorino said.
“Write your congressperson and ask them to take a look at first officer qualifications,” she said. “It is so limiting. It’s affecting the big carriers and it’s putting a crimp on air travel.”