Pilot shortage brings growth concerns to Breeze Airways
The U.S. pilot shortage has reached upstart Breeze Airways.
Facing the same issues as many of its peers, the ultra-low-cost carrier last month increased the pay for its pilots, and, in a controversial move, is actively recruiting pilots from Australia to fill its flight decks.
“We're casting a wide net,” Chris Owens, Breeze’s vice president of flight operations, said in an interview with TPG. “There’s a limited supply of highly qualified pilots and a huge demand for highly qualified pilots.”
The pay increase announced last month moves starting first officer pay on the carrier’s Embraer 190s and 195s from $55 a flight hour to $61 a flight hour, an increase of 11%. Pay increases by an average of 12% for each year of seniority. Starting captain pay moves from $117 a flight hour to $129 a flight hour, an increase of 10%. Pay then increases an average of 14% a year for each year of seniority.
The pay increases are more significant for pilots who fly the carrier’s Airbus A220 fleet, which is expected to enter service in the second quarter of this year. First-year first officers move from $55 a flight hour to $68 a flight hour, an increase of 24%. Pay then increases an average of 25% a year for each year of seniority. First-year captains move from $117 a flight hour to $131 a flight hour, an increase of 12%. Pay will then increase an average of 27% a year for each year of seniority.
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In a bid to retain its pilots, the airline also began to increase the pay of individual Embraer pilots. For each A220 pilot that the airline hires, an Embraer pilot will begin to receive A220 pay, starting at the top of the seniority list and moving on down. This is being done to help keep Embraer pilots happy with their current jet as the larger, more desirable A220 comes online at the airline.
The pay still lags behind Avelo Airlines, which operates on a similar business model and began operations a month before Breeze, though Avelo flies the Boeing 737, which typically commands a higher pay rate than the aircraft that Breeze flies. Notably, it also is lower than the pay at JetBlue, which operates both types of aircraft in Breeze’s fleet and was also founded by David Neeleman.
“We look at JetBlue as a legacy carrier — we're 7 months old, we have to get our footing,” Owens said. “We have to be financially responsible.”
In determining the new pay, he said the airline “looked at what Avelo was doing on this.”
Owens urged prospective Breeze pilots to look at the captain rates, since he said there are quick upgrade opportunities available at the new and growing airline.
However, Owens said that pilot supply issues could hinder the airline’s growth.
“Between attrition and then continuing to attract qualified pilots, there’s definitely a concern about Breeze's ability to grow,” he said.
“I wouldn't say it's unusual attrition, but we always have attrition,” he added. “We always take it personally when someone leaves Breeze. I don't think it's money alone.”
More: Inside Breeze Airways’ swanky Airbus A220 with a whopping 36 first-class recliners
Breeze is actively recruiting pilots from Australia, where the airline industry has been slower to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The airline is taking advantage of a U.S. visa program that is specific to Australian nationals employed in specialty occupations. The move has been criticized on airline pilot discussion boards, Facebook groups and by many of Breeze’s own pilots.
Despite that stateside criticism, however, Owens said that — so far — the program has proved popular among Australians. Owens said the airline has received 135 applications from Australian pilots, of which 107 met the job requirements. These applicants are quite experienced, he said, with an average of 8,000 flying hours under an applicant’s belt.
Another challenge for Breeze: simulator time. The airline does not yet have its own flight simulators, so it’s competing against other airlines that fly the Embraer E-Jets, including regional airlines that are experiencing a significant amount of turnover and require a lot of simulator time.
Breeze plans on operating its own Embraer simulator in Salt Lake City by the end of March, and an A220 simulator by November.
For now, Owens had effusive praise for the airlines’ pilots as it goes through some growing pains.
"We’re very, very pleased with our pilots,” he said. “We have amazing pilots, with great professionalism. These guys have just done a fabulous job."