Two recent regional airline events - the Regional Airline Association's 2015 Annual Conference held in Cleveland in May and the Regional Airline Training (RATS) track at the 2015 World Aviation Training Conference and Tradeshow (WATS) held in Orlando in April - highlighted issues affecting this sector. Chuck Weirauch reports.

Both the RAA and WATS/RATS events featured sessions that dealt with the mutual concerns of a pilot shortage, the need to develop alternative pilot career pathways, enhance safety and training measures and to meet several other operational challenges.

Shortages and Solutions

At the RAA Conference's Pilot Workforce and Training General Session, the major concern was that there soon won't be enough pilots to fly regional airliners in the US if an industry-wide means to provide career pathways with student loan funding is not put into effect. Aviation consultant Dave Bushy said that the pilot shortage is already having an impact, and that the student pilot funding issue is "daunting". National Association of State Aviation Officials president and CEO Greg Principato pointed out the economic issue of having regional airline service to communities reduced or ended.

The pilot shortage problem is already being recognized by the major airlines. At the RAA conference Pilot Workforce and Training General Session, United Airlines director of Flight Training, Captain Mike McCasky said that he is just beginning to see that a dearth of pilot prospects is coming. He sees this as a major problem, since his airline is planning to hire 1,400 pilots in the next 16 months.

Other presenters at the RAA conference focused on ways to improve pilot supply through new career pathways and incentives. Cargo Airline Association president Steve Alterman said that the aviation community has to be more creative in developing, and that it would be in everyone's interest to create a career track for pilot training. At the Regional Airlines Presidents Q&A Session, Endeavor Air CEO Ryan Gumm said that his airline is able to fill all of its training classes because it offers a $20,000 annual retention package for pilots worth $80,000 through 2018. Once hired, Endeavor will pay pilots for their ATP-CTP training.

At the RATS event, Stacey Bechdolt, the RAA's senior director of Safety & Technical Affairs and Regulatory Counsel, said that her organization considers the lack of pilots and pilot recruiting the two top challenges for the year for regional airlines. In spite of the fact that there has been almost complete indifference to these problems by the current US Congress, she reported that there has been some progress within the Congressional community towards a better understanding of these issues. Getting Congress to ask the right questions is the big hurdle, she emphasized.

On the positive side, Bechdolt reported that the RAA and other industry organizations are offering up alternative pathways in second First Officer Aviation Rule-Making Committee discussions - the RAA's primary goal this year. She reported "some progress" in this area and that things are "well ahead" of where they were last year.

"I also think that where we are going to see some movement on the post-hire section," Bechdolt added. "It may be some kind of private-public partnership between a university and an airline - one that works for the students, new hires and the airlines."

University of North Dakota Professor Kent Lovelace participated in both the RAA conference and the WATS/RATS sessions pertaining to pilot supply. At the Orlando event, he outlined the latest version of the new UND Pilot Supply Career Aspirations Study conducted in cooperation with the University Aviation Association (UAA) and the Aviation Accreditation board International (ABBI). According to the new study, there has not been a significant shift among aviation students’ goals in their aspirations towards a long term-career as an airline pilot, in spite of the First Officer Qualification rule going into effect since the first study was conducted in 2013.

Student Pilot Funding

At RATS, a number of the same industry representatives who later spoke at the RAA convention presented a session which dealt with the student pilot funding issue. This session was led by Mark Sawyer, president of Aerospace Consultants, and Terry Hibler, director of Airline Marketing for FlightSafety International. Hibler said that the airline industry will not sustain its current growth, let alone future growth, without a student pilot loan system in place. He also called on all segments of the industry to work to develop new funding sources, and that everyone in the industry must become financially involved in the solutions.

Gary Morrison, head of Regulatory Affairs at CAE, cited the Boeing 2014 Pilot and Technical Outlook report that predicted the need for 88K new pilots over the next 20 years in North America alone, then contrasted that information with the shockingly low number of new US pilots who have taken their ATP multi-engine theoretical test in 2014 (197). He equated these numbers as an indication of a perfect storm for the shortage of pilots in the US.

Darrin Greubel, manager of Line Operations for ExpressJet, said that he is starting to see some changes in pay and benefits with the regionals, along with new alternative pathways, as airlines are starting to take ownership of the pilot funding issue. He pointed out that "the ball is rolling faster than we thought," concerning the pilot shortage problem, so the industry really needs to get behind solutions to the funding issue.

Flight Training

Both the RAA and WATS/RATS events featured sessions that dealt with new flight training devices and technologies, as well as perspectives on how to provide more effective training and procedures.

At the first of five Flight Training Sessions at the RAA show, Morrison made a presentation entitled “Closed-loop Training Systems with Integrated Social Learning and Gaming Options - A Case Study.” The session focused on mobile, e-Learning and training management systems, a topic featured in the main WATS program.

The WATS/RATS agenda also included a presentation on developing a distributed learning program for a regional airline. Caysie Duax, manager of the Horizon Air AQP Program, and Carl Carlson, manager of the airline's Crew Resource Management (CRM) program, passed along the lessons-learned insights they gained in developing the program, which included the distribution of recurrent training modules to pilots through the use of an iPad.

Greubel served as the moderator in the second RAA Flight Training Session, The Regional Airline Pilot Training Experience: A Discussion with Three New Regional Airline Pilots. This session, which was presented in April at the WATS/RATS event, featured the same three new hire regional airline First Officers - Anna Chrzanowski, Horizon Air; Jason Miller, ExpressJet Airlines; and Joseph Romanko, Envoy Air.

In both the third RAA Flight Training Session and identically in the WATS/RATS program, Flight Path Management: Managing Automation, A New Model to Reduce Unstabilized Approaches and Upset Recovery Training were the topics. Captain Paul Preidecker, chief flight instructor for Air Wisconsin and Captain Paul Kolisch, manager of Flight Operations Training for Endeavor Air, provided their views on how to best address these vital procedural and flight training issues.

Preidecker addressed the first two topics, while Kolisch covered the latter one. Preidecker said that he does not really feel that the undue use of automation is that much of a training issue for regionals, but rather that training should have an emphasis on core manual flight handling basics, coupled with a better understanding of how cockpit automation works.

Preidecker also pointed out that airlines have policies and procedures for mitigating unstabilized approaches, but with pilots in those situations still proceeding to land instead of going around, there is an obvious disconnect of the pilots from the procedures. He advocated a procedure adopted by US Airways, where the pilot flying makes the final call as to whether an approach is unstabilized or not, rather than the pilot monitoring. Preidecker said that Air Wisconsin will adopt this procedure later this year.

Kolisch said that it is in the airline industry's best interest to do whatever it can to reduce the number of loss of control in flight (LOC-I) accidents, since the highest number of these events are caused by stalls. He advocated the introduction of surprise in training. "If we don't provide our pilots with an occasional stall surprise in training, we won't know how they will react when they are surprised in actual flight. Furthermore, we deny our pilots to 'know thyself' in how they would actually react to a stall."

The fourth RAA Flight Training Session also covered the pilot supply, student funding and alternative career pathways issues. The fifth and last Training Session focused on training standardization and accreditation.

FAA Participation

Overall, the RAA convention agenda included emergency response, flight operations, flight technology, maintenance, safety and security tracks, in addition to the flight training track. At a special presentation, FAA NextGen Officer and Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker reiterated the agency's 2020 deadline for ADS-B equipage, and urged regionals to work with the agency to meet that deadline. As more ADS-B equipped aircraft come on the line, traffic separation requirements will drop, which will result in improving the capacity of the country's ATC system, he pointed out.

Several other top FAA managers participated in both the RAA and WATS/RATS events. At the latter, Rob Burke, manager of the FAA Air Carrier Training Systems and Voluntary Safety Programs Branch (AFS-280), presented a summary of recent rulemaking changes and discussed how they affect Part 121 training providers. He also said that so far six training providers have been certified to conduct the ATP Certification Training Program (ATP-CTP).

After his presentation, several RATS attendees expressed concern that there are so few providers of this added training, along with trepidation about who would pay for the additional cost of this extension of the First Officer Qualification Rule. Burke also stated that the Pilot Mentoring Rule will be out for public comment this summer as part of the establishment of a Professional Pilot Development Program.