Regional player Mesa Airlines buys 29 trainer jets to tackle pilot shortage


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information.

A key regional airline is trying something new to tackle pilot shortages and the high cost of flight experience needed to fly for an airline.

Mesa Airlines, which operates as United Express and American Eagle, has purchased 29 trainer aircraft and will use the aircraft to allow pilots to earn the 1,500 hours needed to become an airline pilot, with no upfront costs or interest.

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In exchange, pilots will fly for Mesa after reaching 1,500 hours and reimburse their flight expenses over a three-year period while employed at the regional. Mesa this month began paying its first officers a starting rate of $100 per hour, the highest rate in the regional industry.

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This new program, the Mesa Pilot Development Program, is not a training program – pilots applying must have a commercial license with a multi-engine add-on. Instead, it’s designed to be a cost-effective way to get pilots up to the 1,500 hours they need to earn an FAA Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP), the license required to fly as a pilot. line.

One of the hardest parts of becoming a pilot is saving time. Once their commercial pilot certificate is obtained at around 250 hours, pilots are generally left on their own to earn the rest of the time needed to obtain the ATP certificate. Many pilots become flight instructors, while others fly smaller aircraft for hire, a type of flight known as Part 135. Other pilots fly just for fun – often to earn the number of pilots. hours required for a Part 135 job (many of these opportunities require 500 hours or more). Attrition can be high during this phase of a new pilot’s career.

“There are probably 20,000 aspiring aviators out there trying to stall,” Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein told TPG in an interview. “With the salaries, they all want to be pilots. So what’s holding them back? »

Mesa’s solution provides flight opportunities — Ornstein calls it a flying club — in a Pipistrel Alpha Trainer 2 aircraft. Pilots can fly up to 40 hours a week, and the flight will be billed at $25 an hour, a significantly below market rate for aircraft rental and fuel. (An hour of time in a Cessna 172 with the latest avionics — the most popular jet trainer — can cost upwards of $200.)

The electric version of the Pipistrel Alpha trainers purchased by Mesa. Mesa aircraft run on conventional fuel. MICHAL FLUDRA/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

The Pipistrel is a far cry from the planes that Mesa flies in regional service – the CRJ-900 and the Embraer E175. It’s a light single-engine trainer aircraft that’s so light it qualifies for a special Federal Aviation Administration certification called Light Sport Aircraft, which means pilots can legally fly it with training and medical requirements. reduced. Mesa’s initial fleet of 29 will be based in Inverness, Florida, and possibly Mesa’s home state of Arizona over the next year – Ornstein mentioned the Phoenix area but said that no specific airport had been selected yet. The airline also has options to purchase another 75 Slovenian-built aircraft.

After: How a driver shortage could leave travelers with higher fares and fewer options

The economics of this new strategy could be a win-win, although it likely comes at a considerable cost to Mesa, given the clearly subsidized flight time provided by the carrier. Pilots will be able to earn time on favorable terms, earn a spot on Mesa’s seniority list, and earn flight benefits before they are eligible to become Mesa’s first officers. If a pilot joined Mesa’s program just after 250 hours, it would cost them about $10,500 per year, given the interest-free terms Mesa implements. Program participants are also eligible to join United Airlines’ Aviate program, the carrier’s pilot pathway program.

In exchange, Mesa is getting three years of service from its pilots at a time when pilots often spend two years or less at regional airlines as major carriers have stepped up hiring to cope with a wave of retirements. Pilot retention is one of the biggest concerns of the regional airline industry. If a pilot departed early, Mesa would demand the flight costs be refunded, but would not charge any sort of penalty, at least not initially, Ornstein said.

A common criticism of the so-called 1,500-hour rule, which emerged after a crash in 2009, is that the time saved often does little to prepare candidates for the aviation environment. Mesa’s use of such a light aircraft for this program seems to underscore this criticism.

“Obviously it’s all about the money and it has nothing to do with safety,” Ornstein said. “And you know, no other country in the world has adopted this absurd rule.”

After: FAA rejects regional airline’s request to hire some pilots with fewer flying hours

Regional airline executives took aim at the 1,500-hour rule at an executive conference this week, with some calling the rule a threat to the survival of the industry. The conference, held in Washington, opened a day after the FAA rejected a petition from Republic Airways, another regional, allow graduates of its training academy to obtain a restricted version of the ATP certificate at 750 hours.

Since the program was announced early Thursday, Ornstein said there has been a lot of interest.

“We’ve already had a great response on the website,” he said.

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