To get insight into the challenges facing different airlines and airports around the globe, and to learn more about their priorities in the wake of the pandemic, we’ve reached out to a handful of the leading global airline and commercial aviation industry associations.
In the resulting series, we asked industry experts for their opinions on trends impacting the operations of the airlines and airports in their region. In the latest article, Faye Malarkey Black, President & CEO of the Regional Airline Association (RAA), shares what’s on her mind.
Connected Aviation Today (CTA): There have been a slew of flight disruptions during peak travel seasons. What is causing these disruptions?
Faye Malarkey Black: For two years, COVID meant airlines were operating extremely reduced schedules, and these reduced schedules also happened to operate in relatively pristine weather. Now, demand has roared back, and we are experiencing classic summer weather with a lot of convective activity. We’ve experienced several significant storms in a short period of time as deep controller shortages in the public sector, as well as a significant pilot shortage, are straining the system.
Air Traffic Control is pulling ground stops faster than before because they don’t have the workforce to manage through weather like they used to. Airlines have fewer pilots than needed, and scheduling carriers are pulling down markets and frequency despite overwhelming demand. This leaves travelers everywhere with fewer options and large swaths of the country without air service.
Schedule trims carry downstream harm; when the system experiences weather or other disruptions but fewer flights are being operated, there are fewer options to get aircraft, crews, and passengers back where they need to be. Under the pilot shortage, some 500 regional aircraft have been parked, and bringing them back online will require heavy maintenance, with technicians also in short supply.
We can’t change the weather, but we are taking strong measures to attract, hire, train, and support talented aviation professionals—from the tower to the hangar, flight deck, and beyond. We are also asking our government partners for their strongest partnership in this area.
CTA: What can airlines do proactively to prevent disruptions?
Faye Malarkey Black: I think they can only do what you’ve seen already—cancel flights as far in advance as possible. For near-term disruptions, airlines are offering more flexibility for advance travel changes. If they need to cancel, airlines are trying to notify the customer as early as possible. We know passengers don’t want to arrive at the airport only to spend hours waiting before taking a cancelation.
“Aviation continues to evolve with new technologies, new entrants including unmanned and advanced air mobility – alongside a new generation of workers.” – Faye Malarkey Black
For systemic and ongoing constraints, including FAA’s ATC staffing insufficiencies and the ongoing pilot shortage, scheduling carriers have cut capacity despite soaring demand. These cuts have been deep –pulling down frequency, using larger aircraft that take off less often, eliminating markets, and flying far fewer places than before the pandemic. We’re cutting into the skeleton of our system and, to be candid, this is triage in the wake of what I see as a policy failure.
Everyone loses when the only two alternatives available to scheduling carriers are to build an unsupportable schedule or trim capacity until a third of our country falls off the air service map. That’s why I think the only right answer is the collaborative answer.
Airlines are moving heaven and earth to get more people into aviation careers, but we can’t do it alone. We need stronger government partnerships to open aviation career pipelines to more people from all walks of life. We need government stakeholders to advance innovative ATC staffing models. We need to break through regulatory stasis to offer better and more equitable career training for pilots.
CTA: Has aviation lost its luster to attract and retain new and diverse talent? What can the industry do more to reverse the trend?
Faye Malarkey Black: I don’t believe aviation has lost its luster. There will always be magic in taking a flight, making the world smaller, and bringing travelers to the people and places they love.
Aviation competes with other industries that generate new ideas and technology that often attract the same young people we tend to attract, but many other professions face these challenges. Airlines are making big workforce investments, and pay is soaring, but we are finding that pay is only part of the equation.
In 2021, airline pilots were the second highest-paid professionals in the U.S. – behind only specialty physicians, which they will surely overtake with this year’s contracts. Today’s pilots start their first year as a regional airline first officer earning $100,000 a year, and often more. Yet, we still have a pilot shortage.
We also have a persistent shortage of diversity in the pilot ranks. Fewer than 10 percent of pilots today are women or people of color. Airlines do have outreach and support programs for traditionally underrepresented populations; we’re making progress, but not enough.
No matter how attractive we make these jobs, high training barriers block access for many talented young people, putting these transformative careers outside their reach. No student should ever have to stop training because they’ve run out of money to cover the high training costs that exceed student loans, but those roadblocks and career stops are routine today.
“Airlines are moving heaven and earth to get more people into aviation careers, but we can’t do it alone. We need stronger government partnerships to open aviation career pipelines to more people from all walks of life.” – Faye Malarkey Black
Airline programs help, but underlying policy problems undermine our success. Ensuring access to student loans is a must. We can also transfer more of the burden of pilot training costs while improving pilot training by moving to a competency-based training and assessment model that airlines can sponsor.
The way I see it, regulatory inertia in this arena is largely driven by fear of political backlash, and it’s time to break through this impasse. While we pursue other solutions, raising the mandatory pilot retirement age to 67 is the right thing to do. This reduces age discrimination and allows our most seasoned aviators more time to mentor the next generation during a period of intense transition.
Back to the idea of aviation losing its luster – at every level, aviation careers are more than just a job; they are a way of life. They can be demanding, and aviation professionals often work while others play. They load bags, direct air traffic, oversee operations, fly aircraft, and keep passengers safe while families fly home for the holidays.
To thrive in that environment, people must be fairly compensated, they need to know the company cares about them, they need to be able to be their full and authentic selves at work, and they need to feel deeply connected with the impact their work has on other people’s lives. While we solve career access problems, we can’t forget about connecting people with why we do this work in the first place.
CTA: What is driving the seeming increase in “near-miss” encounters at airports or in the air? What is being done to address and reduce such occurrences?
Faye Malarkey Black: Foremost, we have an incredibly safe system, but recent issues should be perceived as blinking caution lights. I participated in the FAA’s safety panel in March, moderated by former NTSB Chair, Robert Sumwalt, who likened the increase in “near-miss” encounters to a fever, and I agree with that assessment. The near misses have spurred relentless examination of the data, and safety professionals are looking at every report, using safety management systems at every level. The important thing is to get the root cause analysis, keep asking the “whys” until we understand the root cause and can address it.
It’s seductive to say the fact that we’ve had no major accidents in more than a decade is evidence that nothing should change. As NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy recently reminded us, the absence of accidents does not mean the presence of safety. Many aviation safety professionals from the government, airlines, and OEMs agree that what got us here – the safest period in aviation history for the past twenty years – won’t get us where we want to go in the next twenty years.
Aviation continues to evolve with new technologies, new entrants including unmanned and advanced air mobility – alongside a new generation of workers. Mentorship by experienced senior pilots, with a redoubled emphasis on professionalism, is a safety advancement we can make. Europe is moving toward a competency-based training and assessment model, and it is a sound approach; vastly superior to using such a highly variable factor as flight hours to measure pilot qualification.
Lastly, while much of the safety focus is centered around flying, ground safety is extremely important. Over the past several decades, the training for these jobs has gotten better and more substantial. This is a result of SMS data, hazard letters, and other information. We have a good system to provide the relevant facts and data, and we need to constantly evaluate it and keep our safety systems living systems with forward-looking solutions to stay ahead of emerging risks.
CTA: Will the arrival of advanced air mobility (AAM) in the near future give rise to a new regional transportation model?
Faye Malarkey Black: I view this as more complementary rather than a substitute for regional airline transportation, and I am enthusiastic about seeing where this can go. The investment is there, and what excites me about these and related technologies like hydrogen propulsion and advanced electric is that they’ll come to market in the regional sector and the smaller side of capacity.
“We can’t change the weather, but we are taking strong measures to attract, hire, train, and support talented aviation professionals—from the tower to the hangar, flight deck, and beyond.” – Faye Malarkey Black
This contrasts with other advancements, like carbon fiber, where the application came to market with the highest return on the largest aircraft. This also means they will need to grow to carry more airplane mass.
Smaller aircraft face unique hurdles that may impact this sector. 19-seat turboprop aircraft were previously a much bigger part of the system, but regulatory and other changes drove the need to move as many people at once, as efficiently as possible, on bigger aircraft. Those trends have been accelerated by pilot scarcity and the need to parse those resources.
It will be fascinating to see how this space evolves as the technology advances and range and seating capacity increase. If the technology quickly empowers AAM with 40 – 50 seats, taking off from different parts of the airport, this could relieve congestion and introduce a dynamic new service. We still need to solve some problems and questions, but great minds are working on it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not represent the views, opinions, or endorsement of Collins Aerospace, its affiliates, or employees.
About Faye Malarkey Black, President & CEO of the Regional Airline Association (RAA)
Faye Malarkey Black serves as President and CEO of the Regional Airline Association and has led the organization since February 2015. In her role, she leads an industry trade organization representing 18 North American regional airlines and 80 associate members. In the United States, RAA member airlines operate 40 percent of flights, employ more than 59,000 individuals, and provide the only source of scheduled passenger air service to 66 percent of the nation’s airports.
Black oversees the daily operations of the Association, develops and executes its policy and business objectives, and serves as the primary spokesperson for the regional airline industry. She is dedicated to promoting and advancing safe, reliable air service to every corner of the country. As a lifelong advocate of small community air service, Black has successfully defended against attempts to dismantle the Essential Air Service program, raised national awareness of the growing global pilot and technician shortage, and worked to secure important payroll supports to help maintain the ready status of the regional airline workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under her leadership, the Association has built cross-industry coalitions and developed a new, collaborative approach to attracting and supporting the next generation of aviation professionals.
With more than two decades of experience in policy, strategic leadership, business development, and management, Black has served the RAA since 1998. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh and resides in Washington, DC, with her husband and two children.