Cost of safety strands Thief River Falls air travelers

The cost of increased airline safety is hitting a small city in Minnesota.

On Saturday Great Lakes Airlines dropped service to Thief River Falls; Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; and Ironwood, Mich. It also effectively shuttered its “hub” in Minneapolis.

The suspension of air service highlights a problem for small airlines — there aren’t enough pilots.

After the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, N.Y., the Federal Aviation Administration began requiring first officers to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time. But pilots with that much time don’t stay at an airline like Great Lakes, the Crankly Flier blog says today, because they make next to nothing and can get more money at larger carriers. About a quarter of the airlines tracked flights in late January were canceled.

Now, you have to wonder if this is an isolated issue or if the pilot shortage will hurt other airlines and cause chaos around the country. Well, we already have United blaming the pilot shortage for the timing of the closing of its Cleveland hub. (I’ll be writing about that in-depth tomorrow.) But the reality is that it should, at least for now, only hurt the smallest airlines that pay the least.

Great Lakes was bound to be one of the first to feel the pinch here. The airline pays incredibly low wages. A starting first officer gets $16 an hour. That translates into $15,360 a year if you can somehow swing 80 hours a month. Even an 11-year captain on the Beech 1900 won’t clear $35,000 in a year flying 80 hours a month. That’s low. And you aren’t flying to glamorous locations either. This is really hard flying for low pay.

With that in mind, you’d expect that in any kind of pilot shortage, the lowest-paying operator doing hard work is going to suffer first. The greater the shortage, the higher up the food chain the problem will climb.

The mainline legacy airlines aren’t worried about their operations. They have a huge pool of pilots in the regional ranks that would gladly jump at the chance to move on up. The top tier regionals are probably a little more afraid. They still have a pool of places to pull from, including guys like Great Lakes. But the buffer isn’t as big. It’s the guys on the bottom that should be most concerned.

The new requirements are already affecting some larger carriers. United Airlines announced today it’s drastically cutting flights to Cleveland — once the hub of Continental Airlines, which merged with United. Airline analyst Michael Boyd tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer the regulations increased the training of co-pilots, “adding $300,000 in costs to a job that he said had a starting pay as low as $25,000 a year.”