The Pilot Shortage Is Preventing People From Flying Between U.S. Virgin Islands

A pilot shortage, drawing pilots away from small operators, has left St. Thomas and St. Croix with virtually no air service between the two islands. These islands within the U.S. territory are virtually unconnected by passenger air, and this is the result of U.S. laws which limit the number of pilots, and which prevent world airlines from providing service. That needs to change.

Lack Of Pilots Hits Small Markets Hardest

U.S. airlines used government subsidies during the pandemic to pay pilots to retire early. And thanks to government rules that limit the number of pilots, to strengthen the bargaining position of pilots unions – like the 1500 hour rule and mandatory retirement age – there aren’t enough pilots and it takes a long time to bring on more.

That’s been a problem for regional airlines serving small cities, since their pilots get recruited away by major airlines. A pilot can be paid more to fly a bigger plane that carries more passengers. So the pilot shortage is felt most acutely by small airports.

U.S. Virgin Islands Are Suffering A Lack Of Air Service

This is really hitting home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas and St. Croix are islands and people rely on flying to get between the two.

  • Cape Air, which provided the primary air service between the two, has cut its operation to the bone due to lack of pilots.

  • Seaborne Airlines, the other main carrier between the two slands, hasn’t been operating either. They are losing their government-granted monopoly on seaplane service.

  • A third airline, Seaflight, has only a single plane which had been grounded for mechanical reasons.

There are still scheduled flights, though mostly with zeroed availability, and often only a couple of seats for sale per day with no guarantee flights will operate. The U.S. should welcome foreign-owned and operated air carriers to provide service where U.S. airlines aren’t willing to do so.

Restricting Service To U.S. Carriers Is Corporate Welfare

Foreign aircraft cannot carry passengers strictly between points in the U.S. and foreign persons cannot own more than 25% of a U.S. airline. U.S. airline ownership rules are among the most restrictive in the world.

The requirements were enacted in the Air Commerce Act of 1926 and the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, and have largely remained the same since then. A “citizen of the United States” is an individual U.S. citizen, a partnership whose members are U.S. citizens, or a corporation or association organized under U.S. law where at least 75 percent of the total voting interest is owned and controlled by U.S. citizens.

The reasons used to justify foreign ownership restrictions 100 years ago included “protection of the then-fledgling U.S. airline industry” (but these restrictions have lasted a century!); “regulation of international air service through bilateral agreements” (we impose restrictions as leverage for negotiations, but we’ve never given in on this through negotiations); “concern about allowing foreign aircraft access to U.S. airspace” (but foreign aircraft fly through U.S. airspace to all the time and foreign airlines must seek permission for this in any case – we don’t allow Pakistan International Airlines for instance); military reliance on civilian airlines to supplement its airlift capacity (but we pay for this through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet subsidies program).

Rules against foreign ownership of U.S. airlines and cabotage – foreign airlines operating on U.S. domestic routes – are basically protectionism for US airlines which keeps fares high and limits choice at the expense of consumers, and by limiting competition we also let airlines get away with offering inferior products. One blogger incidentally reported Avianca for selling award flights on foreign carriers between the US mainland and Guam, sadly those itineraries are gone.

There’s no reason to offer hundreds of dollars per passenger in subsidies for inferior air service as a first-choice policy. While foreign ownership and foreign operation rules have little justification besides protecting private businesses from competition, at a minimum we should invite foreign airlines to operate routes that U.S. carriers have determined are uneconomic. Let those carriers either try to make it work or burn their own capital instead of picking taxpayer pockets, while providing better service options to U.S. air travel consumers.

U.S. airlines will fight this of course because they do not want foreign airlines to gain a foothold here, demonstrating the lie in their arguments against the service, and showing that consumers can have better options than they provide.

We Subsidize Routes That Make Far Less Sense Than This One

The Essential Air Service program was created in the late 1970s as a temporary measure to soften the blow of deregulation. It’s a perfect example of the old axiom that there’s nothing as permanent in life as a temporary government program. The legislation included a ’10 year transition’ period in which small community service could receive subsidies. This was supposed to end in 1988.

The program subsidizes flights to over 150 communities, a third of which are in Alaska. Most of the planes fly largely empty, and the cost of the program per actual passenger are greater than for Amtrak. In many cases the airports receiving subsidies are drivable to other airports where subsidies aren’t needed to sustain air service. Spending on the program has quintupled over the past 25 years.

Yet St. Thomas and St. Croix don’t have drivable alternate airports.

The U.S. Should Invite Foreign Carriers To Operate Between St. Thomas And St. Croix

St. Thomas and St. Croix are part of the U.S. and U.S. rules that restrict pilot supply are choking off the ability to connect the islands by air. Subsidizing the routes would only draw pilots away from other cities, redistributing service rather than increasing it in the short term. Why not invite foreign airlines to operate the route – and others where U.S. airlines do not wish to offer service?

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. The US produces more than enough pilots to meet demand. The issue is these particular companies (and a few bottom-scraping regional airlines) pay subpar wages and benefits so qualified individuals are simply choosing to work elsewhere. The solution is obvious, increase the pay and benefits.

  2. In a parallel system, the islands also have real trouble due to the Jones Act, which prevent a flagged foreign ship from going between U.S. ports without making a stop in another country. That might have been very reasonable when the country had a strong merchant marine fleet, which we no longer have. Today moving cargo directly from Florida to Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, or China to Los Angeles with a stop in Guam or Hawaii is not legal with a foreign flagged carrier. So the ships either have to make a detour or an unnecessary stop. This really raises the prices of goods sent to these places.

  3. So you wish to have unqualified and inexperience pilots flying commercial aircraft?

    1,500 hours is too many?

    How many hours do you propose?

    I will point out the number of pilot errors by fledgling pilots in emerging markets, e.g., Asia.

  4. Exactly. People in the US are desensitized to this because the 1500 rule has resulted in a much safer system here.

  5. 1KBrad, in the old days, the pilot in command had to meet the full 2000-hour ATP requirement but the second in command only had to hold Commercial and Instrument ratings as well as type rating in the specific aircraft. Going back to this standard for flights of less than two-hours duration, which is where the pilot shortage is, is reasonable.

  6. the title of the article proves the media is a victim of the media. There was 8300 newly minted Air Transport Pilots last year… FACTS. This is FAR more than what is needed. the pilots are there..the money is not. STOP CALLING IT A PILOT SHORTAGE! Get your facts straight!

  7. That must be going WAY back because an ATP has been 1,500 hours for decades.

    I will point out that back in the era you are talking about, the number of aviation accidents was magnitudes higher than it is today.

  8. @Lone Gunman
    When did an FAA ATP ever require 2000 hours? Also, no, 250 hour commercial pilots have no place in an airline transport category aircraft. Requiring pilots to hold an airline transport pilot certificate in order to operate an airline transport category aircraft is what’s reasonable. The manufactured pilot shortage will not be an excuse to dilute the safety standards that have resulted in the safest air transport system in the world.

  9. @1KBrad – the 1500 hour standard for commercial pilots has only been in place a little over a decade, and not a single other country followed suit. It hasn’t made air travel safer, and air travel in Western Europe is certainly as safe.

  10. @SMR – oh please, if you want to count all the pilots flying freight and private then sure the ALPA claim about there being more new pilots than job openings is true but it is misleading in the extreme

  11. @Freightdawgg – that is simply wrong, there’s been no measurable safety improvement attributable to the 1500 hour rule and Europe and Canada aren’t unsafe without it

  12. @Gary Leff. It’s not wrong in the least. The 1500 hour rule extends well beyond a minuscule requirement to have 1500 hours and has resulted in the safest system in the world. There are plenty of pilots to fly the airplanes, the holdup is cheap airline management that won’t pay up. Fortunately, the members of Congress recognize the farce that you’ve been pushing and have all but brushed it off (except of course the corporate suckers like Lindsey Graham and his cronies who are fortunately outnumbered).

  13. @Gary:

    “the 1500 hour standard for commercial pilots has only been in place a little over a decade”

    That is incorrect. To obtain an ATP has required 1,500 hours for decades.

    The change in 2013 was requiring co-pilots to have ATPs as well as the captain.

    Asia allows first officers with 250-hours of experience, and their accident rate reflects that.

    I would have no problem with a tightly structured training program allowing first officers to fly with 750-hours, which is the case with former military pilots.

    But 250-hours produces button pushers who don’t actually know how to aviate.

  14. re-read what I wrote, because my statement that all commercial pilots had to have 1500 hours was new.

    i have argued for a tightly structured training program to replace a useless hours standard – which has done nothing for safety, which is why neither canada nor europe has followed suit

  15. @Freightdawgg “the holdup is cheap airline management that won’t pay up. ”

    That’s simply not true.

    The supply of pilots is artificially constrained. It was crammed down using bailout cash to fund early retirements. Expanding supply takes years regardless of cash offered.

    Could regional airlines pay enough to draw pilots away from cargo carriers? Sure. That would leave a shortage on the cargo side. And there’s no reasonable economics in paying pilots more to fly 18 seaters, since you have to spread that cost across so few passengers.

    The 1500 hour rule for all passengers is an ALPA scam meant to drive up wages at the expense of airlines and customers.

  16. @Gary:

    A commercial pilot’s certificate still only requires 250-hours. That certificate does not allow someone to operate an aircraft under Part 121, however, which includes scheduled transport category aircraft operations.

    An Airline Transport Pilot certificate requires 1,500 hours, which allows a pilot to crew a transport category aircraft for airlines.

    The fact that Canada or Europe has not followed suit does not make them right and the U.S. wrong. I seem to recall an Air France A330 being lost over the Atlantic because of pilot error.

  17. “The fact that Canada or Europe has not followed suit does not make them right and the U.S. wrong. ”

    Are you suggesting that Canadian and European aviation is less safe? And that this is the result of a pile-on of non-rigorous hours? Weird flex, but ok.

    “I seem to recall an Air France A330 being lost over the Atlantic because of pilot error.”

    What an idiotic statement. You’re going back to 2009 for Air France 447 where the captain had… 1,700 hours on the Airbus A330. The first officer had 2,936 flight hours. And the relief first officer had 4,479 hours on the A330.

    If you want to list accidents due to pilot error n the U.S., hours notwithstanding, we can do that all day.

  18. While what you say is true, I would rather take the ferry to st. John. Never found the reason to go to St. Croix.

  19. @Gary:

    “What an idiotic statement.”

    Having a difficult time having an adult conversation without resorting to insulting statements?

  20. US military pilots with far less-stringent flight hour requirements fly scenarios every bit as challenging – and sometimes more – than commercial pilots. A 1000 hr C-17 aircraft commander (USAF equivalent of a captain) could be flying with a 300 hr copilot doing a night NVG assault landing to a blacked out dirt strip in an austere location. No big deal.

  21. @Gary – 8300 Newly Minted AIR TRANSPORT PILOTS. Only airline and Part 121 Cargo require an ATP. Some small private companies may want to see it but it is not required. 2021 was a very productive year in creating Airline-ready pilots. If the airlines want them ..they are there.

    Also…the ATP Certificate has ALWAYS been 1500 hours required for an unrestricted ATP. The only rule change was that the First Officer also needed to be ATP rated. Most airline First Officers complete the same check ride as a captain and are unrestricted on their certificate to operate as a captain… although all airlines by law will require upgrade training, 1000 hours in airline ops and a fed-ride.

    To all the readers who believe there is a pilot shortage…. you have been fooled. There is pay shortage at the regional level. That is not a shortage of pilots, but a shortage of the ability to pay said pilots what they believe they are worth. There may be a lack of ability for airlines to utilize common sense in training schedules, vacancy filling and displacements which create more training needs and keep them from hiring and training all the pilots they need to hire but I can assure you…. There is more than 2 pilots available and qualified for every open position.

  22. @Justin89.. I am guessing you are airline management. Brats we are. I am 40… have dedicated my life to aviation and after working retail leadership 15 years to pay off my debts, transitioned back into aviation a few years ago. I have 4700 hours of flight time and this year I will make $133,000. A fair middle class salary. I am an FO , not a captain and yes I will make more as my career moves forward but I can’t say any of my hard working peers are overpaid. Last month out of my 82 flying hours, my flight duty period was 160 hours and since my base is too senior to hold and is getting more senior I spent another 30-40 hours commuting. Of the 82 flown hours, 30 hours were red eyes, I even had 2 red eye turns.

    No sir… I am not over-paid. I love my job, would not trade it for everything.. but I have earned every dollar. I can say no other job that has as much responsibility for life pays as little.

  23. I stand corrected on the PIC requirement. I was thinking CFI.
    But, the question remains: for sub-two hour flights, what is an appropriate number of hours for a first officer? Not 250, fine. 1000? 750?

  24. first, there is no reason for St. Thomas or St. Croix or any other city to be given an exemption unless the entire system is going to be changed for everyone. The fact that islands depend on air service means that people should be prepared to pay more for it which is exactly what is going to happen to small and medium sized cities that are being connected by regional jets; their pilots are going to be paid much more which will result in higher priced tickets.
    Of course, these islands could provide subsidized housing and meals to pilots if they want to attract pilots to provide air service.

    The USVI gets substantial benefits from being a US territory.

    A restricted ATP is granted by the FAA if one gets a bachelor’s degree from about 90 US universities and a restricted ATP can fly part 121 airline operations at 1000 hours of flight time.

    Skywest is working on an option – as other airlines already have – to fly 30 passenger or smaller aircraft with 500 hour pilots.

    and, for those that argue that there isn’t a pilot shortage, if flights are being cancelled because there aren’t enough pilots, there is indeed a shortage. Increasing the pay might bring more people in as pilots but the shortage exists regardless of the pay or not; increased pay and higher fares – and fewer travelers – might fix the problem but there is still a shortage.

    And alot of people need to come to grips with the reality that there just migth be fewer people flying as a result of the pilot shortage and the people who do fly will pay more to do so.

  25. Lone Gunman. The appropriate number of hours an airmanship experience for a new FO should be enough to save you butt if the captain becomes incapacitated, an engine blows and the weather is a minimums with little options less. Anything less than that requirement and we lose what we worked so hard for. The SAFEST period in aviation history. Yeah.. 250 can press the buttons and put the plane down on a fair weather day but I call BS that a 250 hour pilot has the Airmanship to properly handle the highest stress situations.

    Military is a whole different ball game! The training is completely different. Not apples to apples at all. I agree they should be fine with far less hours given the type of airman leadership they learn along the way and the type of flying they do. I will say there is a learning curve for MIL guys when it comes to CRM and Part 121 ops but that’s quick to learn. They already have high experience in high stress , high pressure , high speed environments.

  26. @Justin89 Sorry you didn’t have what it takes, but being so bitter is simply a waste of your own energy. Paid too much? Not quite, pilots have spent decades being nickel and dimed by airline execs who are paid 7-8 figure salaries.

  27. It is sort of like the so-called nursing shortage. There isn’t much of a pilot shortage, if any. There is a shortage of pilots who want to work. The pilots the airlines let go are still pilots. There were enough pilots before Covid. Unless those pilots are 65 or over, they could come back to work somewhere if they wanted to.

    Gary’s not a pilot, so I’m not sure how he knows what it takes to be one. I’m a private pilot with an instrument rating. I don’t claim to know how many hours are the appropriate minimum requirement for an airline transport pilot. I am certain, though, that it takes more than a structured instruction regime.

    All hours are equal when it comes to pilot training and what counts in a minimum-hours rule, but they aren’t really equal. For example, simulator IFR time is not equal to actual flying in hard IFR as far as what is learned and developing real-world proficiency.

    The more time in a plane, the wider the range of experiences encountered. Experience is the best teacher, and the more experience the better. I see no reason to alter the retirement age and minimum-hours rules just because of a temporary pilot shortage created by the airlines to boost profits.

  28. You’re 100% correct. Gary isn’t a pilot and has no clue what it takes or what the appropriate experience level is to be an airline pilot. He should stick to worrying about what the liquor selection is in first class and quit worrying about what happens up front.

  29. @Tim– I have to disagree. That is like going to the grocery store, seeing that Milk is $6 and you only wanted to pay $3 then going home and saying they ran out of Milk. The pilots are there…and guess what!? The money is too, it is just being badly mis-directed and mis-managed. Weird we do not have an “airline executive” shortage.

  30. No responsibility for the US airlines who paid staff to leave just two years ago?

    These rules were in place before that, and they offered buyouts thinking travel wouldn’t ramp up as fast as it did.

    We know Gary likes to blame government, but this is largely the private sector’s fault.

  31. You guys know a lot about this stuff so may I ask a question please?
    1500 hour rule: in previous discussions I heard mention the 1500 hours are accrued in a flight school (expensive thus a barrier).
    The 1500 hours are accrued in a Cessna. Is this true? If so, how is that relevant to handling a large plane? Do flight schools have 321’s, 337’s etc.? Where does a trainee pilot build up hours in those large planes? I honestly am curious.

  32. Most the 1500 hours can be done in a Cessna. 500 hours have to be cross country (flights more than 50nm miles from home) and there are many other experience minimums. Although much of that 1500 is certainly not in a jet, airmanship and aeronautical decision making is the most important factor. Every aircraft incident or heroic story had to do more with ADM and leadership than anything else. The experience is relatable if you ask me. Around 300 – 350 hours will be spent in flight school obtaining many ratings and most pilots will spend around 1000 hours teaching. The quality of how you spend your 1500 hours does sometimes make or break how well you make it through training at the regional airlines. Pilots who didn’t spend time in more modern flight decks with auto pilots flying in IFR conditions struggle more and have a higher chance at washing out. At the end of the day, all pilots are graded on the same specifications per type rating/certificate and airlines have some but not much patience with those who struggle. SIM time is $$$$.

  33. SMR: so the 1,000 hours in the Cessna are important for ADM?
    The 50nm in the Cessna is important why?
    So pilots spend up to 350 hours in a flight simulator?
    Why is 1,000 spent teaching younger (in hours) importantly?
    What would you do to improve things?
    I sincerely thank you for your help!

  34. We took the Seaborne seaplane between St Croix and St Thomas in February and the service was outstanding. No reasonably priced tickets out of St Croix so we booked a flight home from St Thomas and took the seaplane over for something like $59. The rental car agency at the harbor was closed on Sunday so they told us to give the keys to the seaplane agent who would return it for us, which they did, and the return time was noted as the time we gave them the keys. All in all, very professional and we enjoyed the service and the flight.

    In any event, according to FlightRadar24, Seaborne is still operating between the two, with several scheduled flights having taken place each day for the past few days, at least.

  35. I stand corrected – Gary is right, the Seaborne schedule has only a couple of available flights on only a few days all week, at higher prices than in the past.

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