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Pilots getting a big pay boost at yet another regional airline

Aug. 24, 2022
5 min read
Pilots getting a big pay boost at yet another regional airline
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Another regional airline is giving its pilots a significant raise.

CommutAir, a regional that is partially owned by United Airlines and flies exclusively for the Chicago-based airline, is hiking its starting pay for first officers from $51 per hour to $72 per hour and for captains from $84 per hour to $100 per hour.

With its move, CommutAir becomes the fourth regional airline to dramatically increase its pay rates for pilots this summer, following the three regionals owned by American Airlines. While CommutAir's rates are not as high as the rates at American's regionals, which start first officers at $90, they're longer term — in force for the duration of the airline's flying agreement with United, which ends in 2026. American's rates are temporary through August 2024.

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Additionally, CommutAir will now pay its first officers a $25,000 annual retention bonus, with a $50,000 retention bonus for the airline's captains. Those bonuses are paid out in monthly installments.

CommutAir's move comes as a pilot shortage is acutely impacting the regional airline industry and driving airlines to increase pay in order to compete for a smaller pool of pilots. Things have gotten particularly bleak for regionals during the COVID-19 pandemic, as pilots at larger mainline carriers took buyouts and early retirement packages, leaving a large void of pilots for the airlines to fill. A primary source of pilots to fill that void comes from regional airlines, where pay and quality of life tend to be lower than at the major airlines.

CommutAir in particular is in a unique situation, with significant growth in recent years.

The airline only began flying jet aircraft — the Embraer 145 — in 2016. In 2020, it became United's sole operator of the type when United ended its flying agreement with longtime partner ExpressJet. (ExpressJet later operated as an ultra-low-cost carrier, aha! On Tuesday, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced it was shutting down.)

"We went from a small regional airline to a bigger one in the middle of the pandemic," CommutAir CEO Rick Hoefling told TPG in an interview.

CommutAir, which has its roots in the Northeast, now operates at three United hubs: George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Dulles International Airport (IAD) near Washington, D.C., and Denver International Airport (DEN).

CommutAir route map. (Screenshot from Cirium)

Due to the shortage of pilots, CommutAir began sending aircraft to the desert for storage late last year. But its fortunes have reversed in recent months, with an increase in flying earlier this year, Hoefling said.

"So with this new deal, we think that we're going to be poised and set up to obviously support United and their mainline hiring targets through a better letter of agreement with our pilots to allow us to continue to grow our block hours and do the right things here at CommutAir," Hoefling said. Block hours are the aggregated amount of an airline's flying time, measured from when an aircraft leaves the departure gate to when it arrives at the arrival gate and is a common metric to measure the size of a regional airline.

Related: How a pilot shortage could leave travelers with higher fares and fewer options

The letter of agreement for the pay increase was reached between Hoefling and his management team, and the union representing CommutAir's pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association. Despite some high-profile tensions between the Regional Airline Association, which represents the interests of CommutAir and other regional airlines at the national level, and ALPA's national leadership, which denies the existence of a pilot shortage, Hoefling had kind words to say about his bargaining partners.

"There's a significant amount of trust between leadership and ALPA here," Hoefling said. "I think in the company, we try to be very thoughtful."

In a statement, CommutAir pilot union head Capt. Jeffrey Suttler implied that the big raise was a long time coming.

“In yet another example of airlines stepping up to the plate to attract and retain experienced, well-trained pilots on the flight deck, CommutAir pilots will finally receive the compensation and quality-of-life contract improvements they are due,” Suttler said. “For years, regional airlines have tried to skimp and save on the most important safety feature on any flight – two highly trained, fully qualified pilots. Today’s agreement at CommutAir is an acknowledgment that airlines must offer competitive packages and work rules to attract and retain pilots.”

CommutAir — and two other regional airlines — participate in United Aviate, a flow program that places regional pilots at mainline United. A fourth airline, Air Wisconsin, is leaving the program after it announced this week that it will begin flying exclusively for American Airlines starting next year.

"That's a benefit for us," Hoefling said. "I'm not so sure how United views that ... but for CommutAir, a smaller pool and industry-leading wage, at least from the United Express partners currently, I think that really sets CommutAir up for success."

With CommutAir's growth comes a (slightly) new name and a new visual identity. CommutAir will rebrand to CommuteAir in the middle of next month and unveil a new logo, Hoefling said.

"We want to keep the excitement alive here with a new brand and a fresh look," he said, speaking of the company's momentum.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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