HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — When they decided to become pilots, Chris Bernard and Michael Hornberger, captain and first officer of American Eagle flight 6127 from Salisbury to Charlotte Monday morning, expected to be flying a route like this one, working in the cockpit of a plane something like the 50-seat Embraer 145s they fly.
One thing they never expected?
“When Piedmont put out the new pay scales, my paycheck went, I mean, for lack of a better term, through the roof,” said Bernard, who — like Hornberger — is based at Harrisburg International Airport. Their employer, Piedmont Airlines, is headquartered in Salisbury.
“It was definitely surprising when I first heard the news,” said Hornberger, who started working for Piedmont at what seemed like an awful time for pilots, deep in the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“Certainly the future looked bleak,” said Steve Keefer, vice president of flight operations for Piedmont. “And you fast forward a year and a half, and all of a sudden now the shortage is back.”
Piedmont is one of two American Airlines subsidiary “regional carriers,” as the units are known, where pilot pay surged earlier this summer. Regional airlines operate flights on smaller aircraft for airlines like American.
Regional airlines are like the industry’s minor leagues — the Harrisburg Senators, say, for the Washington Nationals.
Bernard’s expectation when he joined Piedmont, initially as a first officer in 2019?
“Paying my dues, you know, to have a little bit less pay at the regional level,” he said. “And then eventually you get up to the big airlines, and that’s where you get the big pay. That was the expectation.”
For most of airline history, pilot pay at regionals — called “commuter airlines” in their earlier days — was closer to minimum wage than it was to the six-figure salaries commanded by veteran pilots at major airlines.
Now the airline industry’s Sens are paying more like its Nats.
Some regionals like Piedmont are owned by a “mainline carrier,” as airlines like Piedmont’s parent American are known. Others, like SkyWest and Republic, are separate companies and typically fly for more than one of the “big three” — American, United, and Delta.
Despite the surging regional pilot pay and better benefits, regional airlines don’t have enough pilots, leading the big three to reduce service in cities like Harrisburg and Salisbury (where American’s seats are down 12% and 52%, respectively, this month compared to July 2021, according to an abc27 News analysis of Cirium/Diio Mi schedule data) and end service entirely at others.
Overall scheduled departing seats on all airlines are down 2% at Harrisburg for July 2022 compared to July 2021, according to Cirium data, whereas they’re up 10% at Philadelphia and 15% at Baltimore-Washington.
“Detroit, we used to be three or four flights a day [on Delta,]” said Scott Miller, Harrisburg International’s spokesman. “Now we’re one or two depending on the time of the year right now. And that’s what’s frustrating.”
Frustrating — and expensive for consumers, because more people want to fly now despite fewer seats.
“If you have a 250 people competing for 100 seats on an airplane within a three-week period, the people willing to pay the most are going to get those seats,” Miller said. “It’s just like an auction. It’s like buying a stock.”
So fares are up, and airlines need the higher fares to pay for more expensive jet fuel and… well… more expensive employees, including pilots.
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Average fares are typically somewhat higher at airports like Harrisburg than at larger ones like Philadelphia — an average domestic round trip this time last year (July through September, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data sourced via Cirium) cost $446 at Harrisburg compared to $360 at Philadelphia and $322 at Baltimore. (At Salisbury, which is far smaller than Harrisburg — and where Piedmont, flying for American is the only airline, the figure was $488.)
Comparable data for the current period won’t be available until later this year, but an abc27 News review of prevailing airfares suggests — anecdotally — that the fare gap between larger and smaller airports has grown, even as fares have risen at nearly all airports.
What would Keefer have said a few years ago if someone had told him he would soon be offering between double and triple pilot pay yet still not have a full pilot roster?
“I would have said you’re crazy,” he said. “It’s amazing not only how much the industry has changed, but how quickly it has changed.”
Larger airlines don’t have enough pilots either right now, but they can more quickly replenish their ranks by hiring pilots away from… well… airlines like Piedmont. Regional airlines need new pilots, who — in turn — need years of expensive training. Piedmont and some others are now subsidizing that training, in Piedmont’s case through it’s “cadet program.”
The regional airlines American owns, like Piedmont, also offer pilots guaranteed priority for jobs at American; regional airlines owned by other mainline airlines make similar promises. Piedmont is the only airline with a crew base at Harrisburg International.
Piedmont plans to hire 400 pilots this year.
“We’ll never equal the pay exactly of the major airlines,” Keefer said. “But, you know, the closer we get and the lifestyle that we can offer” — including the ability to be based in a regional with a relatively low cost of living, like central Pennsylvania — “it does help to retain pilots.”
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Miller’s outlook on the tight supply of airline seats and high fares, based on his discussions with airlines?
“Hopefully that starts turning around late this year or into 2023,” he said.
His advice for now to consumers?
“I tell people all the time, if you see a fare you think is reasonable, grab it,” Miller said. “It’s going to change. And it mostly goes up, unlike the stock market right now.”