Pending Merger Will Bring More Pilot Jobs

The Frontier, Spirit pairing will also likely bring about industry change.

Frontier Airlines has announced an upcoming merger with Spirit Airlines. [Courtesy: Frontier Airlines]

Frontier and Spirit Airlines made the news both in and outside of aviation last week when they announced their pending merger. I don’t think this surprised many people in this industry. These carriers fly the same type of aircraft, and they’re both adept at employing the ultra low cost carrier (ULCC) business model.

Overall, this is good news for pilot jobs. It may even have some positive effects on the rest of the airline industry.

More Jobs, Better Flying

Frontier and Spirit used to compete against each other in several popular markets. By merging, they’ll be able to free up resources to expand into new places.

[Courtesy: Frontier Airlines/Spirit Airlines]

The shared website they set up to announce the merger asserts that this expansion will create 10,000 new jobs in the next few years. While many of these jobs will be ground personnel at new locations, Frontier alone had enough aircraft on order before their announcement to effectively triple the size of the airline. This means lots of pilot jobs for aspiring aviators.

For a young aviator, a job at a carrier like Frontier is a wonderful opportunity. Entry-level pilots at regional airlines flying smaller aircraft like the Bombardier CRJ200 or Embraer E145 don’t accrue flight time quickly. A friend of mine has spent long days flying five or six legs, without climbing above 18,000 feet, to log a total of 2.5 flight hours. At that rate, it takes years to accrue enough hours to be attractive to a bigger airline.

The ULCCs like Frontier and Spirit compete with regional airlines for the same pool of new pilots. They’re even taking steps to beat the competition with programs like one between Spirit and ATP Flight School that offers a fast, sure path to a great professional flying job. Why would a pilot fly for a ULCC instead of a regional? Frankly, the flying, the money, and the treatment are so much better, there’s little comparison.

Instead of sweating it out at low altitudes all day flying short legs in an old jet, pilots at a ULCC can fly a brand new Airbus A320Neo all over the country, or even to Central and South America. One leg might be several hours long, and it’s likely they’ll fly more on any given day at work than their regional airline peers.

If these pilots want to move on to an even more prestigious airline, those rapidly accumulating flight hours will help them reach their goal sooner. If not, they enjoy good seniority at a company with better pay & benefits, and a pleasant variety of destinations for layovers. Top-line pay rates at ULCCs are generally about double the best pay rates at regional airlines.

Given the choice, it’s tough to find a reason why a young pilot would choose a regional over a ULCC.

ULCCs as a Catalyst for Change

Regional airlines already have a tough time with staffing because bigger airlines have started a hiring spree. Now, the regionals will have increased competition from a Frontier/Spirit powerhouse working to optimize a combined operation with new destinations and more aircraft.

I suspect that the regionals will increasingly have to just give up trying to staff their operations.

“Major airlines cannot afford to give up their footholds in these smaller markets, so they will have to adjust.”

This poses an existential threat for the regionals themselves, and a logistical and economic impact for the major airlines that rely on their feed to and from smaller markets. The A320Neo is so economical to operate, that it can compete with traditional regional jets in smaller markets. The Airbus A220’s stunning efficiency allows it to operate for roughly the same cost as a Bombardier CRJ900 or Embraer E175, yet it carries 30 to 60 more passengers. (Breeze and JetBlue have figured this one out. I won’t be surprised if other airlines of all types join Delta in adding the A220 in the near future.)

Major airlines cannot afford to give up their footholds in these smaller markets, so they will have to adjust.

In my mind, the best way to cut costs is to abandon the regional airline model altogether. Those jets are uncomfortable, those subsidiaries waste resources duplicating corporate structures, and they cannot afford pay rates high enough to attract long-term pilots.

Instead, mainline carriers could absorb the CRJ900 and E175 aircraft for their smallest routes, while using efficient, new aircraft like the A220, A320Neo, and even the Boeing 737 Max for everything from regional feed to long, thin routes in the 2,000- to 4,000-mile range.

The pilots flying these aircraft would be on the seniority list at a prestigious major airline. Pay rates for the smallest jets might not be as high as other narrowbodies, but they wouldn’t be less than what regional airlines are paying right now anyway.

If competing with ULCCs forces major airlines to adapt in this way, it will be better for every pilot in the industry.

Democratizing Air Travel

The younger generations in our society are increasingly concerned with ensuring equal access to good opportunities. Many young job people seek out employers with values matching their own.

The ULCC business model works because some travelers have to prioritize cost above everything else. Whether traveling domestically in the U.S., or internationally, our world relies on the ability to quickly traverse large distances. A pilot who believes that everyone deserves access to this type of travel will be more likely to seek out and stick with an airline who shares their goals.

Spirit president and CEO Ted Christie eloquently celebrates his ability to provide this service in his company’s merger announcement by saying: “We are thrilled to join forces with Frontier to further democratize air travel.”

By holding true to that ideal, companies like Frontier and Spirit may enjoy a moral advantage over some competitors. The pilots who go there for that reason will get fulfillment beyond just better pay and quality of life.

Personally, I don’t love every aspect of the ULCC model. However, I have to admit that carriers like Frontier/Spirit have the potential to make life better for both pilots and customers. The fact that these types of carriers seem to be thriving in the US suggests that they’re definitely on to something.

If you’re looking for a good flying job at a solid company, this merger may be the best piece of news you’ve heard so far this year.

Jason Depew flies as a captain for a major U.S. airline. He is also an Air Force reservist and has flown more than 300 combat missions over Afghanistan and other garden spots. Based in Tampa, Florida, he instructs in the Icon A5 and anything else he can get his hands on. His writing is focused on personal finance for pilots with the goal to help all types of aviators enjoy great careers, sometimes in spite of themselves. You can send Jason questions at editorial@flying.media.
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