The plant just announced layoffs. It’s time to think about a new career path, and there might be a few dollars available for retraining.
Meanwhile, Great Lakes Airlines is considering Modesto to be among the places to offer commercial passenger service with its 30-seat turbo prop planes. It just needs a few good pilots to fly them – 10 or so to make it pencil out.
No problem. Just enroll in a flight school, get your pilot’s license, train alongside an experienced pilot and you’ll be shuttling people from Modesto to Los Angeles in no time, right?
After all, for roughly $1,500 you can be trained and licensed to drive a semi-rig down Highway 99 by logging 160 hours in just four to eight weeks. Certainly, aviation requires greater and more extensive training, but learning to fly commercial aircraft is doable, right?
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Uh, not really.
Not unless you’ve got gobs of money, lots of time on your hands, and don’t mind being paid on par with a pizza maker as a co-pilot after you’ve spent all that money (hundreds of thousands of dollars) and time (1,500 hours) to get the job.
When The Bee’s Kevin Valine first began reporting that Modesto is among the three cities being considered for expansion by the small regional airline, the BYOP (bring your own pilots) element seemed pretty hokey. But the lack of pilots who meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s qualifications is very real and problematic for small regional airlines trying to link small markets to the bigger ones.
Why the shortage? Several reasons, but none with more impact on the industry than an FAA ruling in 2013 that changed everything. It stemmed from a 2009 crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 49 people, and was blamed on pilot/co-pilot fatigue and error. The FAA responded by demanding co-pilots log 1,500 hours of total pilot time (including instructional), up from 250 hours. Then they must fly 1,000 more hours before they can become captains who, in 2009, averaged $67,000 in earnings for the smaller airlines. The co-pilot in that case made only $23,900 flying 75 hours a month, according to The New York Times.
The new rules triggered a dramatic turnaround from a few decades ago, when a would-be pilot couldn’t hire on with the airlines for a different reason.
“I was planning on becoming an airline pilot,” said Bill Zoslocki, who has been a licensed small-craft pilot for more than 30 years. “But the pilots coming out of the Vietnam War were getting the jobs.”
Military pilots are among the exceptions within the new rules, allowing them to co-pilot with 750 hours of flying time. But, Modesto Airport Manager Mark Germanowki said, the military is focused on retaining many of its pilots, thus keeping them in the service instead of having them available to commercial carriers.
“We’re not seeing them flooding the markets,” he said.
Three or four decades ago, the smaller carriers didn’t have to compete against shippers including FedEx, UPS and DHL for pilots, as they do now. And when the smaller carriers’ pilots build up their hours, the large commercial airlines can pay better and lure them away.
“It’s created a huge pilot shortage,” Zosclocki said.
When Great Lakes executives visited Modesto last week, they met with a dozen pilots, Germanowski said. But out of the 12, only three will be interviewed. The rest fall short in one or more areas. Modesto hasn’t had passenger service since 2014.
Dave White, executive director of Opportunity Stanislaus, found himself not in the usual position of finding retraining opportunities for displaced workers but instead looking for certified commercial pilots who live in the area.
“Our job is to identify current pilots who are recently retired or nearly retired who are looking for the right kind of opportunity, and are licensed to fly the (Embraer EMB 120) Brasilias (planes),’ White said. “Maybe someone in their 50s who’s been flying coast to coast and tired of it, who doesn’t want to spend so much time away from home. They can be home for dinner, or at least just an overnight.”
They don’t all have to come from Modesto, White said, but will need to be found within California.
Long term, it will take more rules revisions or perhaps training subsidies to develop a deeper pool of up-and-coming pilots who can train alongside the veterans and eventually take their places as captains. Without a military background, the financial incentive to become a commercial passenger plane pilot just isn’t there.
“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars of training at this point,” Zoslocki said. Those kinds of training dollars aren’t available.
Ultimately, the new pilot program involves finding older pilots.