Regional Pilots ARE Airline Pilots...

A1FlyBoy

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Regional pilots are airline pilots

By Paul Richfield
Executive Editor
ATP/CFII. GIY, Beechjet, CitationJet

Flying for the regional airlines is a lot like a buffet line a hundred yards long. It looks good from a distance but can quickly lose its appeal up close.
Still, regional flying is a good way to gain the experi­ence needed to reach what many professional pilots per­ceive as their ultimate goal-a job with a major airline.
At least that's what they've told us all along. Build your flight time, avoid stupid mistakes and those fat paychecks will be yours. Envied by men, desired by women and pets, you'll stroll the airport concourses in style with your hat slightly askew and little drag bag in trail.
Too bad it's all a lie-a tale phonier than the turbine engine experience column in a 250-hr CFI's logbook. Look at the pilots to your left and right, then look in the mirror. None of you are going to make it. If you do, it will be because the majors' pilot screening system failed.
Of course I'm exaggerating slightly to make a point. But getting hired by a major has never been a sure thing and it's an even tougher bet now that the airlines are once again struggling to survive.
Some regional pilots, however, aren't waiting for a call that may never come. They've decided to make the best of their predicament and seek pay parity with their major airline counterparts.
This push for equality had been brewing for some time but Comair's pilots gave it new legs during their recent strike. They dared point out that codeshare agreements and advanced jet aircraft have made "commuter airlines" a laughable and outmoded concept.
Predictably, Comair's managers feigned disbelief. The regionals have always been an entirely separate airline industry, they told the massed TV reporters-one that has traditionally relied upon a separate breed of pilots that choose to fly for altruistic reasons alone.
Truly a cynical response but an understandable one as well. After all, Comair and dozens of other regionals for several years required new-hire pilots to pay upwards of $14,000 for their own initial training. It's not surprising that some managers still see their flightcrews as rich dilet­tantes and lightweights.
For once, however, the mainstream media got it right.

Taking the pilot pay argument to its logical conclusion, they asked if a Comair ticket costs half as much as a tick­et for a Delta Air Lines flight.
Obviously the answer was no, though the weasel word­ing didn't make for a good sound bite at all. Just some fantasy about the regionals not generating as much cash as the majors because their aircraft have fewer seats.
If that's the case, then how come the largest regionals achieved profit margins of 20% and more prior to Sep 11 while the majors have a great year if they can show a 3% margin? For the same reason running shoes are made in Jakarta instead of La Jolla-cheap labor.
Trade reporters didn't dwell on the business angle. They asked if Comair's Bombardier regional jets demanded any less of their pilots than Delta's Boeing fleet. This question was tougher to sidestep but the air­line brass did their best, treating the whole thing as a perception problem.
Driving a CRJ around thunderstorms at Mach 0.80 with 50 full-fare passengers in the back should not be viewed as a job at all, they reasoned, but merely as a "springboard to a lucrative career."
As sick, twisted and outrageous as this position undoubtedly is, some pilots-the youngest and least experienced ones in particular-still cling to the hope that it's true. The veterans know better.
Still, the regionals do what they can to keep the dream alive-their hiring practices reflect this. Regional airline recruiters tell me the ideal pilot mix is 33% slack-jawed newbies, 33% pensioned military retirees and 33% sin­gle-pilot IFR types from the Part 135 world.
Each third has its own narrow goals and objectives, making it difficult for pilot labor leaders to obtain a con­sensus. This makes the precedent set by the Comair pilots even more remarkable. It's truly a pity that after all the big talk they eventually settled for a modest pay raise. Be sure to give them a friendly wave the next time
you see them down at the hundred yard buffet.

Paul Richfield, Pro Pilot's executive editor, has covered the world aerospace beat for the past 6 years with a focus on flight operations. Richfield began his career as a US Army infantry officer and later worked as a chief pilot and direc­tor of flight operations under Part 135.
 
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