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Aspiring Pilots: Fly Our Planes Now, Work for Us Later

Mesa Airlines has announced that it has acquired 29 small two-seat planes, with options to buy up to 75 more over the next year. The airline plans to extend interest-free loans to pilots to fly these planes around until they have accumulated the hours they need to work at Mesa.

September 22, 2022
6 minutes
minute read

Mesa Air Group Inc. is offering a new way for pilots who have gone through initial training to build up the hundreds of additional flying hours they need to qualify for airline jobs. The company's new program will allow pilots to gain experience by flying regional routes. This will give them the chance to build up their hours and get the experience they need to qualify for an airline job.

Mesa Airlines has announced that it has acquired 29 small two-seat planes, with options to buy up to 75 more over the next year. The airline plans to extend interest-free loans to pilots to fly these planes around until they have accumulated the hours they need to work at Mesa. "I believe that this will help pilots who are trying to build up their flight time," Jonathan Ornstein, Mesa's chief executive, said in an interview.

Competition for pilots has been fierce in recent months, with regional carriers like Mesa struggling to keep up. This is partly because bigger airlines have been hiring more quickly than ever to replenish their ranks as they recover from the pandemic. As a result, airlines say, many regional planes have been grounded, without enough pilots to fly them. This has led to reductions in flights to dozens of small cities around the country.

Regional airlines have been increasing pay to attract more recruits. For example, Mesa recently said it would nearly triple newly hired first officers’ pay to $100 an hour. Horizon Air, part of Alaska Air Group Inc., this month agreed to increase pay by 74% for captains and 85% for first officers. Pilots at regional airlines owned by American Airlines are also receiving sizable raises, though a portion is temporary.

Some airlines have been trying to reduce the experience requirements for pilots, but this has met with resistance from the Air Line Pilots Association. The union believes that there is no shortage of pilots and that carriers are simply trying to cut corners and weaken safety rules.

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rejected a request from Republic Airways Inc. to halve the required hours for pilots who go through a special program at the airline’s training academy. The FAA found that Republic’s proposal wouldn’t provide an “equivalent level of safety.”

Pilots who have completed flight school and obtained commercial licenses generally have around 250 hours of flying experience. However, in the United States, pilots must have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience to be eligible for a job with an airline. There are exceptions for former military pilots and graduates of colleges and universities with professional aviation programs.

To become a professional pilot, many people start out by working as flight instructors. This allows them to gain the necessary experience and hours in the air. Some pilots also fly charter flights or take on other odd jobs, such as towing banners or dusting crops. If they have the funds, pilots can rent time in small aircraft. It can take over a year, sometimes a few years, to build up the hours.

Mesa's new plan is unlikely to end the debate over the 1,500-hour rule, which was implemented in 2013 in the wake of a fatal plane crash in 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y. Investigators blamed that crash on a tired crew who didn’t properly react to stall warnings.

Advocates for the new rule, including family members of those who perished in the 2009 crash, unions, and some safety officials, say that it ensures that pilots have sufficient experience. But some executives and other safety experts believe that the additional time is a prohibitive barrier for many would-be pilots that adds little benefit. And since the hours are unstructured, some executives say they can result in ingrained bad habits that then need to be unlearned.

Mesa is offering light-sport planes to pilots for $25 an hour, which is significantly below the cost of renting a plane at most local airports. Mesa will cover the costs with interest-free loans. Pilots in the program will be able to fly up to 40 hours a week, which Mesa said will allow them to build their time more quickly than they could otherwise. Mesa hopes its initiative will eventually accommodate over 1,000 pilots a year.

The new training program will operate in Florida starting in October and Mesa expects to expand to Arizona. Pilots in the program will get flight benefits and begin building seniority at Mesa. They will also have "priority status" for employment once they are qualified. Pilots will have three years to repay the costs.

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