Mesa Airlines has purchased 29 two-seat Pipistrel Alpha Trainer 2 aircraft and placed options to buy another 75 over the next year to serve as the foundation of the company’s in-house training course called the Mesa Pilot Development Program. Announcing the move last Thursday, Mesa said it expects the program, which gives pilots the opportunity to accumulate the 1,500 flight hours required for a Part 121 first officer, to help alleviate a shortage of pilots at the airline and offer them a direct route to a long-term career.
“The pilot shortage could become a permanent feature of the airline industry if we don’t get more aviators into the system,” said Mesa chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “It is basic math. If there aren’t enough trained pilots, customers suffer from loss of service and high-ticket prices.”
Mesa plans to put the aircraft into operation in Inverness, Florida, starting next month, followed by expansion to Arizona over the next year. The airline expects the fleet eventually to provide capacity for up to 2,000 daily hours of flying time and train more than 1,000 pilots per year.
Qualified pilots who join the program fly up to 40 hours per week, allowing them to build company longevity, receive flight benefits, and gain priority status for employment as a first officer at the airline. Mesa fully finances the $25-per-hour training cost interest-free.
Mesa’s recent high-profile efforts to attract pilots include its participation in United Airlines’ Aviate career development program, designed to give cockpit crewmembers a clear path toward a mainline flying job while building flight hours at the regional airline. Originally available only to Mesa pilots flying in the United Express network, Aviate in June extended the offering to all the Phoenix-based regional pilots, including those flying in the American Eagle network.
Last month the Air Line Pilots Association negotiated record pay raises for Mesa pilots, resulting in an overall hourly rate increase of nearly 118 percent for first-year captains and 172 percent for new-hire first officers. Starting September 15 Mesa first-year Bombardier CRJ900 and Embraer E175 captains saw their pay increase to $150 an hour, while first officers saw their starting pay jump to $100 an hour. Twenty-year captains now make $215 an hour, while five- to 10-year first officers earn $110.
“Our program will be the most cost-effective and one of the fastest routes to a long-term career as a professional pilot,” said Mesa vice president of operations John Hornibrook. “We want to make it as easy as possible for a whole new field of candidates to join Mesa, including and especially people who might not have traditionally considered aviation.”
Mesa cites federal statistics that show the commercial aviation industry needs about 14,500 new pilots annually; however, average annual production of new pilots meets only about 44 percent of the need. The airline also noted that each year the U.S. produces an average of 6,335 newly certified pilots eligible for hire by the airlines, leaving a gap of 8,165 unfilled jobs across the aviation industry. “In some cases, routes that get cut as a result of the pilot shortage are the only commercial air services to those communities,” said Ornstein. “Without action now, the U.S. air travel system may be snarled for the next decade. The stakes are high for both passengers and the U.S. economy.”