American Airlines looks to bolster its pilot ranks with new regional carrier

Fort Worth-based American Airlines is going after the regional airlines that once flew for competitors to bolster its depleted feeder carrier ranks.

American said this week that it will start using Air Wisconsin as a regional airline when that company’s contract with United Airlines runs out in March 2023. Air Wisconsin operates a fleet of 60 Bombardier CRJ200 jets.

And on Thursday, American Airlines-owned Piedmont said that it would offer jobs with carryover pay and vacation to pilots at ExpressJet, which also formerly flew for United before twice filing for bankruptcy in the last two years.

“You’ve likely seen headlines in recent months about a regional pilot shortage affecting the US airline industry,” said American Airlines Chief Financial Officer Derek Kerr in a memo to employees this week. “American has been – and will continue to be – aggressive in leading the industry in tackling this challenge, but it will take some time before the issue is resolved.”

Regional airline pilots are one of the hottest commodities in the travel industry as a massive shortage of certified aviators is robbing many carriers of the ability to fly more routes. American said earlier this year that it has had to park about 100 regional aircraft because of a pilot shortage.

In July, American reduced its flying plans for the rest of the year because it doesn’t have the necessary pilots.

“We have regional aircraft that aren’t in the air, and, while we may not have the pilots, we’ve got the resources to fly those aircraft,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said during the company’s second-quarter earnings call in July.

On Tuesday, Atlanta-based ExpressJet filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and said it would start liquidating. ExpressJet flew as a regional carrier for United Airlines until 2020, but United cut ties in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ExpressJet came back as Aha! Airlines, an ultra-low-cost carrier operating out of Reno. But ExpressJet’s continued struggles led to bankruptcy this week, with the airline saying “we regret that a combination of market and economic conditions lead us to take this action.”

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ExpressJet’s 1,300 pilots may be the carrier’s most valuable commodity. Those pilots have been furloughed while the airline goes through bankruptcy.

Salisbury, Maryland-based Piedmont, which is owned by American, said it will match longevity for pilots at ExpressJet to give them similar salaries to their old employer without starting over at the bottom of the salary scale. The carrier could also offer thousands of dollars more in hiring and retention bonuses.

“Piedmont added distressed carrier language to its pilot contract last year, anticipating the fragility of some regional carriers after the pandemic,” said Matt Kernan, Piedmont’s operations director. “No one wants to see an airline fail, ever. We know that ExpressJet pilots are well-trained aviators who know the Embraer 145, and we are very pleased to make this transition as easy as possible for them. “

ExpressJet flies Embraer 145 jets, the same flown by Piedmont.

American’s other regional carriers, including PSA, have similar language in their contracts that allows pilots from other airlines to carry over longevity to get higher pay, better benefits and more vacation time than starting pilots, said PSA spokeswoman Jenna Arnold.

Pilots with a high number of hours are the most in-demand, Arnold said. Experienced regional pilots are being hired by mainline airlines such as American and United because the pay is higher than at their regional counterparts, leaving regional carriers without experienced captains to help with new hires out of flight school.

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