Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Professional pilots are facing a dilemma: do you build hours toward captain at a regional airline or jump to an LCC?

From record-shattering hiring at the major airlines to previously unthinkably lucrative contracts at the regionals, nearly every month of 2022 brought a new development for professional pilots. [Credit: Shutterstock]

Happy New Year, everyone. As we move into 2023, it’s worthwhile to look back on 2022 as the year that shook the aviation industry, the piloting profession, and particularly the airline sector to its core. From record-shattering hiring at the major airlines to previously unthinkably lucrative contracts at the regionals, nearly every month of 2022 brought a new development that left those of us who’ve been in the business a while agape with amazement.

There have been some smaller interesting industry developments as well, mostly unintended consequences of the larger pilot shortage and not all of them necessarily positive for the new or aspiring professional pilot. One of these is that major airlines have revived the practice of “metering,” limiting or slowing the non-flow hiring of pilots who work for their affiliated regional airlines and instead preferring to poach pilots from rival carriers’ affiliated airlines. So, for example, it has become easier to get hired at Delta as an Envoy pilot than as a non-flow Endeavor pilot—and meanwhile, the Endeavor pilot may have a quicker time getting on at United than at Delta. This has reduced the career value of working for a regional airline even as the monetary value has increased considerably.

Another notable development is that the importance of turbine pilot-in-command (PIC) time—once an absolute necessity for career advancement—has greatly decreased, to the point where the legacy airlines are hiring a fair number of pilots without it. In fact, turbine PIC has become completely unnecessary for getting on with national/low-cost carriers (LCC) like Spirit, Frontier, Alaska, and JetBlue as well as ACMI (Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance) cargo carriers like Atlas, Katlitta, and Amerijet. These airlines’ willingness to hire regional first officers (FO)—and the legacy airlines’ willingness to poach these airlines’ FOs without turbine PIC—has created an interesting alternative career pipeline: regional first officer to national/LCC/ACMI FO to legacy airline.

This, in turn, has created a rather awkward situation at the regional airlines. They have lost so many FOs to this alternative pipeline that they no longer have enough upgrade candidates with the requisite 1,000 hours of Part 121 SIC (second in command) time (FAR 121.436) to meet their rather substantial need for captains. It is therefore a lack of captains that is canceling flights at the regionals. Most regional carriers are relatively overstaffed on FOs and have slowed pilot hiring accordingly.

Many of their junior FOs are barely flying on reserve. This, in turn, is increasing upgrade time, and driving ever more regional FOs to pursue the alternative of applying to national, low-cost, or ACMI airlines.

My airline—one of the top three legacy carriers—has already hired quite a few pilots via this alternative pipeline over the last three years. I have flown with quite a few former Alaska and Spirit FOs who have little or zero turbine PIC experience. Several were hired in their mid-20s with only three or four years of total airline experience. They are generally fine pilots, and I do not hold their good fortune against them. I suspect that part of my airline’s calculus in hiring them was to A) not further cripple our regional partners by hiring too many of their captains, and B) kneecap our low-cost competitors by starving them of pilots. I’d argue that this strategy is counterproductive, or at best zero-sum, because the establishment of the alternative pipeline has itself been tremendously unhelpful for the regionals’ staffing woes.

This is all background to a very real dilemma for many current regional airline first officers. The question is this: should you stick it out at your regional and build the 1,000 hours of Part 121 required to upgrade to captain, or should you get on with a national, LCC, or ACMI carrier as soon as possible?

My personal feeling, likely influenced by my own career path, is that this career requires flexibility, and that one needs to stay open to alternative paths if your primary plan appears to be stalling out. The regionals’ staffing woes are not getting better, and if a captain shortage at your airline is paradoxically delaying your advancement, it’s hard to see that situation improving soon. In that case I’d probably aim for someplace that flies bigger airplanes and pays better than your regional airline. Currently that includes all national and LCC airlines, and some of the ACMIs. You can continue to build Part 121 time there, gain a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 type rating (or, be still my heart, the 747), and put another airline training program on your resume.

This is not to say that turbine PIC time doesn’t have intrinsic value. It does. One’s first years as an airline captain are a valuable time of learning and seasoning. I think I was a much better FO at my current airline thanks to my years as a captain at the regionals. But the major airlines themselves are not valuing it so greatly these days, which, given their data-driven hiring practices, tells me that a lack of turbine PIC does not appreciably affect one’s ability to pass an airline training program. You’ll still eventually get your time of seasoning as a new captain; it might happen with 180 passengers in the back instead of 50, but the aeronautical decision making is the exact same. Before the 1980s, it was perfectly normal for one’s first captain “checkout” to be at a major airline, and I suspect we’re heading back to those days.

There’s one final wrinkle that might affect your decision to stay at the regionals vs. moving on to a LCC or national. If the regional airline model collapses fairly suddenly, one or more major airlines may be forced to absorb their wholly-owned regional carriers and bring their pilots on board. It would be a shame to miss out on this opportunity, but I’m personally a bit skeptical it’ll happen. Rather, I expect a continued whittling of regional flying and gradual mainline absorption of that capacity in the same manner as the last seven years. That should provide plenty of opportunities for regional pilots (and national/LCC pilots who wish to make the move) at the legacy carriers—but I don’t expect any major regional pilot windfalls that should prompt you to stick around longer than necessary.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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