Small Cities Are Losing Air Service Thanks To One Large Union

14 airports have lost all commercial air service in the past three years, and 324 small airports have seen losses of air service averaging 30%.

While the long run trend is fewer non-stop flights in small markets, large hubs have made it economical for airlines to serve many of these markets with a connection. Now we’re seeing fewer – and in some cases no – connections.

The primary (though not only) reason for this is successful lobbying efforts by the Air Line Pilots Association – the major pilot union – that has limited the supply of pilots and driven up their wages. The goal of ALPA is to make it hard to become a pilot, so that airlines can’t replace them.

  • 1500 hour rule. No other country requires so much unstructured time, unrelated to safety, in order to become a commercial pilot. After the Colgan Air crash – where the pilots were at fault but had over 1500 hours (!) legislators were looking to ‘do something’ that appeared to enhance safety and ALPA was ready with ‘something’. It was self-serving.

  • Retirement age. Commercial pilots have to retire at age 65. Medical care has advanced, and so has medical screening. We can test vision, mental acuity, and reflexes. Pilots go through physicals that include checking heart, lungs, nervous system, blood pressure and more. We know if they’re healthy or not but have an arbitrary cutoff age. To be sure, may pilots want to retire at 65. Some of them go on to fly at air service providers can support pilots at an older age. But there’s safety reason for an arbitrary cutoff.

Airlines made a strategic blunder during the pandemic, expecting travel to take longer to recover. The federal government provided commercial airlines with subsidies to keep all of their employees attached the airline and ready to fly. However many of them paid pilots to take early retirement, using taxpayer funds for the opposite of its purpose (though complying with legislative language as-written, no surprise since airlines were part of writing it).

So airlines shed pilots, they weren’t training more pilots, and now there’s a shortage that’s difficult to recover from. Major airlines can attract pilots, but they’re pulling people out of the regionals who have a much harder time. And it’s those regionals that predominantly served small cities with smaller aircraft.

Regional carrier Southern has a plan to operate 9 seat aircraft to small cities which allows them to use co-pilots with fewer hours. SkyWest has a plan, too. And ALPA blows a gasket every time an airline tries to operate under current rules in a way that expands the pool of available pilots.

ALPA says there’s no pilot shortage. This isn’t true. Tucker Carlson says the problem is too much diversity, which also isn’t true. The problem is simple, government rules make it so difficult, time-consuming and expensive to become a pilot – largely to line the pockets of current pilots – that we don’t have enough people who are allowed to fly planes to serve small airports.

(HT: Paul H)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You meant to say “NO” safety reason, and I agree. If the U.S. is the only country to require such stringent and arbitrarily high requirements, it isn’t for safety. Do people really think British pilots, for example, are unsafe since they don’t require 1,500 hours? Pilot unions have a valid purpose – collective bargaining for example – but the government shouldn’t appease them by enforcing barriers to entry that affect the well-being of hundreds of communities.

  2. Gary, I have no doubt that ALPA wants to keep the 1500 hour rule for the reasons you stated. However, they don’t make the law (I’m sure they lobby intensely for it), but it’s Congress that does. So maybe your ire should be directed towards them.
    In regards to the age requirement I haven’t heard from you what you’d propose…should it be 70, 75 or done away completely.
    It’s one thing to bring attention to a problem you perceive, but then I think it’s incumbent upon you to provide ideas and solutions…not just bitch about the current state of affairs.

  3. I lived in the Hudson Valley for 8 years and SWF saw more regional airlines come and go than the seasons changed. This was back in the day when Northwest, Delta, US Air, & AA had regional carriers. The tendency was to buy you ticket no more than 10 in advance for the airline may fold shop at the airport. However, the TSA line was 8 minutes max and parking was plentiful. As things whittled down, walking on the tarmac to a prop in the rain became the norm as jet service fell to the wayside. However, it was a hell of a lot easier to use SWF than drive down to that cluster f**k of LGA, JFK, & EWR.
    That’s why PAX still use regional airports and pay the extra premium…who wants to fight the traffic and TSA hassle at LAX, ORD, DEN, MIA, and JFK.

  4. Perhaps air service to these small airports is not profitable for the airlines…and passengers in these small cities are not willing to pay the actual ticket price that would enable an airline to continue service there. Air travel is not mass transportation like a city bus or subway – it is a business.

    Also, the previous retirement age for airline pilots was 60, but Congress changed it to 65 to match the ICAO standard, which ALPA supported. The author’s claim that ALPA is limiting the supply of pilots doesn’t make sense – if that were the case, ALPA would have lobbied against raising the retirement age to 65.

    As for the 1500 hour rule, no other country has a similar requirement because the path to becoming an airline pilot is different than it is in the US.

    Bottom line, unions don’t make business decisions for the airlines. Airlines will deploy their resources where it will produce the best return.

  5. 1500 hours of flying experience does have a basis in increasing safety, and it is de facto structured experience. When I got hired at a major airline I had over 3000 hours flying 3 different types of multiengine aircraft for the military for the previous 10 years. Experience facilitates competency, and competency ensures safety. 1500 hours is a minimum, and it probably should be higher.

  6. Measures put in place in the name of safety and security are very hard to unwind once put in place. So we end up overpaying more and more and the returns on the spend not only decline, they may even go negative.

  7. What Union busting agenda do you have? The pilot shortage finally is being addressed by the airlines putting efforts towards a pilot production pipeline similar to what the military does. And focusing on the retirement age and the 1500 hour rule is stupidity.

    Pilot shortages aren’t directly causing loss of service, it’s lack of profitability. And the airlines that serve those small cities are regionals that historically pay their pilots 20-30k a year, for being gone 18-20 days a month and who have hundreds of thousands of school loans. Pilots don’t want to stay with those companies are going to better companies. Only this year is the industry trying to retain talent by paying a living wage (but it’s only a stop gap).

    The 1500 hour rule is about getting experience, which in turn increases safety. Don’t ask ALPA, but ask aviation insurance companies. They will tell you the same story. If you get more regionals crashing like we did before the 1500 hour rule, you will see profits fall even more and more cities losing service, oh and more dead ppl.

    Retirement: we raised the age from 60 to 65. It just kicked the can down the road and we are in the same predicament 5 years later. If you raise it to 67, same problem. But also you will have pilots who are at the top of pay scale, with tons of sick leave, and higher incidence of going on disability for losing their flying medical. The cost for labor you actually receive is not worth it, and even the airlines would agree to that.

    It’s all about production as far as the pilot shortage in the airline industry and finally the airlines are taking a step in the right direction with programs like Aviate and many others. It will eventually solve the shortage. Ask about my time in the military and their pilot shortage and it has to do with both retention and production. Too bad ALPA couldn’t solve the retention issues for the military like they do for the Airlines. Also, read any history about the airlines and safety, and you will be happy that ALPA is there to protect the pilots and your safety.

    The reason cities are losing their service is profitability. Pilot shortages have a small role in that maybe, but to solve that, is nothing you wrote about.

  8. 0 for 21 on articles posted with basic grammatical/spelling errors!

    Are you writing these on your phone or something?

  9. I have no dog in the fight except I’ve been teaching airline pilots how to fly the jet for over 20 years. I don’t fly the line. The 1500 hour rule, in my opinion, adds a maturity factor to the equation. The young pilots with 250 hours may very well have excellent piloting skills. On the other hand, they have little experience flying in the “real world”. In an emergency, the experienced captain may very well be “alone” in the cockpit with the unexperienced pilot. As many a captain will say, “We don’t make a mistake unless both of us make a mistake. Experience is the deciding factor.

  10. Gary, you grossly musunderstand the industry. How long have you been following US aviation? You obvious don’t remember the 12 years that followed 9/11 when US pilots lost pensions, were furloughed, and and took massive pay cuts. It took astronaut like qualifications just to get a mediocre job and nee pilots at regional airlines made $19/hr and had to go on food stamps all the while making payments on huge unsubsidized student loans. It is the hard work of the volunteers at ALPA that have brought back respect to this career. The pilot shortage is due to the corporate greed of these companies that milked every last cent out of the the crew members that keep you safe when you step foot on an airplane. You’re article is disgusting.

  11. Airlines knew this massive wave of retirements were coming for the last 10-15 years. Yet they kicked the can down the road and even offered early retirements in COVID. Just 6-7 years ago new hire FOs at an airline qualified for food stamps. Yeah that’s what I want as my pilot…. Corporate greed and ignorance did this to themselves. Your either naive or getting funding from someone with an agenda…

  12. @Mike godfrey – “How long have you been following US aviation? You obvious don’t remember the 12 years that followed 9/11 ” I literally started *this website* in the months following 9/11. And my daily commute then took me past the Pentagon.

  13. What an unbelievable load of shit. Go do some research on why the 1500 hour rule is in effect, then, include that in your article, rather than just your uninformed opinion. ALPA has a long history of both innovating and causing the implementation of many, many aviation safety measures. Some examples are TCAS, GPWS, fortified cockpit doors, and rest rules for flight crews. All of these things were opposed by the industry. Your comment about the age 65 rule is, frankly, ignorant stupidity. Unless you’ve been in an international airlines pilot’s shoes, and have flown multiple Atlantic and Pacific crossings every single month for years, you have no clue as to what it does to your body. Opinions about things that you are wholly ignorant about are completely worthless, as this column is.

  14. Maybe airline tickets to cross the country should no longer cost $200 round trip,

    I made $14,200 a year at my first airline. Below poverty line.

    The writer of this article doesn’t have a clue.

  15. This is poorly researched. Currently legacy airlines are hiring at record levels due to mass retirements during covid. They had no idea the industry would recover as fast as it did. That cause a massive vacuum of pilots. Do realize, airline management made that decision to shrink the work force only to have to turn around and hire a ton.

    The hiring at these airlines are taking Captains from regional airlines like crazy. That is currently the bottleneck. Regional airlines do not have enough captains. They are starting to stop hiring new first officers which is causing a big backup in the new pilot pool. Right now there isn’t an actual need for first officers at the regional airlines.

    Also do remember. Airline management at the large airlines pushed for these regional airlines to grow exponentially in the 2000s. They knew there was going to be a pending “shortage” due to the then age 60 rule for retirements. Knowing that problem was looming they decided to nearly double the demand for pilots. The massive growth of the regional airlines is exactly why there is a “shortage.” ALPA is not the root cause.

  16. Did you know that United made the decision to voluntarily kill ExpressJet? Compass was also axed. Is Trans States still around? Where do you think they went? These airlines used to account for more than 6,000 pilots. The management of the major airlines led to the demise of all three. Let management reap what they sow.

  17. You sir are a clueless shame of an editor….this article has zero truth or merit. Please do some actual research first next time.

    I guess I should write an article about how small towns/cities are losing their newspaper service, due to greedy uneducated editors…

  18. Sir, I disagree with your assertion that the US 1500hr rule is arbitrary and unrelated to safety. Flight training and certification is significantly different in the US than in the UK or Europe. EASA and JAA requirements are much more stringent on theory as a way of supporting reduced flight experience for their pilots.

    In the United States, FAA requirements and testing on theory are much less rigorous.

    The US uses experience where Europe and the UK use academics to ensure an adequate standard of safety is met by their pilots. Both systems work equally well when we delve into safety metrics.

    If we reduce flight hour requirements, an overhaul of our certification process needs to occur. That is unlikely to happen, and the more stringent theory requirements will see an uptick in attrition in US flight training programs.

    The US has enjoyed a uniquely safe period in airline safety since the implementation of the 1500hr rule. We can actually see the changes in NTSB safety data. Returning to 1996-era flight hour requirements will likely return us to 1996-era accident rates per departure.

  19. Gary a Real Estate Appraiser in AZ has about the same hour requirements as a FAR Part 121 pilot. You are correct the airlines miscalculated covid recovery. That wasn’t ALPA. I’m over 65 and you really don’t want me flying anymore. Everyone is different, but you are wrong that this can be determined on an FAA medical. And if we did the types of testing to TRY and determine if pilots were still competent, we’d see some leaving well before 65.

  20. It’s NOT a 1500hr rule requirement. It’s a requirement to hold an ATP cert which happens to require 1500hrs. Is 1500hrs a bit arbitrary? Absolutely yes. US airlines have recently gotten onboard with the ab-initio style training. I think the R-ATP could eventually be expanded to multi crew and European style ab-initio training. Until the it’s an inefficient filter for finding out who really wants to be a pilot and that’s not really a bad thing. Let supply and Demand do its thing. Cheers!

  21. Speaking of prioritizing profits over safety, reducing the current Airline Pilot experience requirements would do just that. The requirement to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot license before flying a plane full of passengers in a commercial airliner requires a higher level of proficiency and has increased safety since it was implemented. Has it cost the airlines a little more money to pay for more experience in the cockpit? Yes. But look no further than the safety record of U.S. airlines in the past decade. Life is very fragile. When lives are lost there is no way to get them back. Shame on folks like Gary Leff (the author of this article) and Chip Child (SkyWest CEO) for attempting to compromise safety. Let’s hope that, if they are successful in reducing experience in the cockpit, that their loved ones don’t end up in a burning pile of wreckage. Safety first!

  22. A load of crap. Lets talk about where the pilot shortage really came from.

    1. Up until recently, new hire regional FOs made roughly 25k a year. To get that job, most spent in excess of 100k, most of which was loans. Then you base them in expensive cities they can’t afford to live. Next, after years of experience, they get to a major airline. Starting pay, 30k. Many pilots quit and left the industry. Out of the 25 new hires in my first regional airline class, only half still fly. The airlines killed their own pipeline out of greed. And guess what, those were ALPA contracts, being greedy and all.

    2. The 1500 rule has been one of the most successful safety laws to date. You can argue all you want about its true effectiveness, but numbers don’t lie. Since the 1500 rule was enacted, the US airline industry has seen the longest stretch of time without a fatality ever. It’s never been seen before. To blame the 1500 rule as a mechanism to only boost pay is just plain ignorant and truly shows your lack of credibility.

    3. Small cities are losing service because it’s no longer economically viable to serve those routes. Airlines are in the business of making money and only serve the destinations that make the most. If Fort Dodge, Iowa generated hundreds of millions on revenue, it would have service. Unless these cities want to subsidize service, they are unlikely to return. In fact, businesses will often pay airlines to fly specific routes out of specific airports. The actual cost to operate some of these routes to smaller cities would force most families to drive to major hubs to get to Disney World.

  23. Blaming the labor for a labor shortage .

    I respectfully disagree with nearly everything in your article, and I won’t repeat the reasons stated above by many.

    You are correct that there is a pilot shortage, but drawing the conclusion that it’s a union’s fault is beyond speculative, it’s utter fantasy. Labor shortages are nearly always a management problem – pay folks what they’re worth and they’ll do the job. And if not, then they’ll go work somewhere else. Pilot wages, particularly at the regionals, are finally at a level to where it’s making it attractive to become a pilot. For years this wasn’t the case, hence the shortage. And no, the money wasn’t lining the pockets of other pilots, it was going to airline management, per usual.

    The 1500 hour rule may seem arbitrary to you, but I’d invite you to research how many aviation accidents happen overseas as compared to major US carriers year-over-year since the legislation was put in place. I can’t speak for others, but I feel a lot more comfortable putting my family on a plane where I know there’s that level of experience on the flight deck.

  24. If private jet transport were taxed much more heavily than commercial, scheduled common carrier flights, wouldn’t that perhaps free up more pilots to fly more passengers?

    If the 1500 hour requirement were reduced to 1350 hours, would that really make a big difference?

  25. For a moment I thought that this was an Onion article. Suffice to say you have absolutely no clue what you are talking about

    The 1500 hour rule spawned from a regional airline crash where the pilots had insufficient experience. This minimum flight time is must certainly appropriate

    While it’s true that other countries may not have that same requirements; they also have different pipelines and none share the safety record that we now do

    Go back to spending your time with crayons and coloring books. This would better serve us all

  26. @jason magness “The 1500 hour rule spawned from a regional airline crash where the pilots had insufficient experience.” both pilots in the colgan air crash had over 1500 hours.

  27. @ Jason Magness

    When one has exhausted the brilliance of The Onion, there is always the unbridled joy of yet another logically derelict anti union rant (the stupidity of the above article too asinine eve to warrant comment) , or medically and scientifically bereft COVID controversy to hearten the wizened frequent flyers contributing to the suspiciously overblown page hit data of VFTW. We love it.

  28. Wow. This article seriously lack’s historical context and is not going to age well.

    If you were flying out of one of these small cities (or any city for that matter) who would you want at the controls?

    This article is simply attempting to discount safety. ALPA has nothing to do with the current shortage. As a matter of fact they tried to prevent it. You need to shift your blame to corporate greed and lack of governmental control.

  29. Sorry but the 1500 hour rule has nothing to do with safety – not in its genesis (Colgan Air > 1500 hours) nor in its application (Europe did not follow and is perfectly safe).

  30. If there was better intercity rail in the US (like there is in Europe or Japan), this really wouldn’t be an issue…

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