Cranky Flier’s Small Community Air Service Merits Creative Solutions

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ARTICLE: New FAA Rule Will Hurt Small City Air Service

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Brett Snyder, the President and Chief Airline Dork of Cranky Flier LLC, writes a most interesting blog. His recent piece (linked) was impressive enough to be included in A4A’s significant Smart Brief Regulatory Update.

His blog makes the following compelling syllogism:

• The FAA has issued new pilot qualification rules, and
• Those new rules increase the hours required for a first officer to fly a commercial flight and
• That development plus the FAA Age 65 rule and other factors will create a shortage of pilots who can fly for the regional airlines and
• The laws of economics will force the airlines to pay more for their pilots and
• The secondary impact of that will be that either

  • Regional airlines will have to increase the fares or
  • will be forced withdraw service to the small cities.

Mr. Snyder’s prediction is rock solid for it follows the position of the Regional Airlines Association.

Cranky Flier exists in the blogosphere and has an extensive following. Mr. Snyder challenged his readers to respond and they have submitted a number of comments, most of which are in the column’s “cranky” vein. Some positive contributions have mentioned that a few regional airlines appear to be attempting to draw potential pilots into the profession through company-paid ab initio training. That’s better, but there is a need for some significant outside-the-box thinking.

To stimulate some more creative thinking, let’s throw out some random observations to see if service to small communities can be saved:

  • the first wave of smaller regional jets were initially overpriced because the major hub carriers desired them as vehicles which could overfly the competitors’ major cities
    • those airplanes have outlived their economic lives and are listed one some lessor’s books at virtually zero value
    • the lessors/banks who hold these airplanes might be willing to put them into service in small, natural monopoly markets
  • the small cities at issue frequently are sites for community colleges which could become learning institutions for lower cost, high quality academic pilot training;
    • there are a lot of students, particularly from low income and minority backgrounds, who might see a long term career in aviation (not just as pilots) attractive
    • these students may qualify for federal education supports and if not the federal elected officials, who represent these small communities, might see such a scholarship program as preferable to the EAS subsidy
    • the training of the pilots would include more than cockpit skills; their curriculum could include other academic subjects that would support their growth into management
    • the students could work during vacation periods in a number of airline related positions (baggage handling, passenger service, station ops, etc.)
    • the community college could offer training for others interested in airline jobs other than pilot careers
  • the small cities may have thin demographics for major airline schedules, but
    • many have local businesses which have financial resources
    • many have economic interests in other cities
  • the airline industry has experienced significant contraction and
    • there is a surplus of able airline executives and management who might be interested in starting up a new airline
    • these alumni might see relocation as an interesting option
  • the greatest genius of Herb Kelleher and Southwest’s founders was the motivating force of employees who own the company; so
    • our small town airlines would offer stock to all of the people who come to work (the senior pilots and administrative assistants of WN are comfortably retired)
  • involving local business persons at each of these incubator cities creates investors and loyal buyers
  • each of these cities may have natural market pairs which are too thin for a big airline to make an adequate return
    • but with fully depreciated aircraft and employees with long term perspectives
    • the economics may work
    • a pattern of 5-10 city pairs may be found
    • in that the schedules will be concentric on the originating city, the flights times may be attractively designed and
    • maximize the capture of existing demand and stimulate new traffic
  • each of these cities may not be able to support all of the overhead required to run an airline, particularly in the start-up phase
    • virtual operational, flight, maintenance centers can be centrally located for a number of these new start-ups on a cost effective basis until there is enough cash flow to support the individual “franchise”
    • similar virtual marketing, customer service and finance departments can be created
    • the lessors are familiar with a lot of the needed talent
    • the opportunity benefits to move these totally depreciated assets into productive lease will be incentives for the owners of the grounded RJs to support these initial overhead functions
  • necessary legislation to support this concept should find ready sponsors who represent the relevant cities

The Chinese proverb may be good precedent “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

This is one example of a broader approach to solving this conundrum. It is probably full of holes and based on unrealistic assumptions, but it is an interesting straw man which should serve to stimulate alternative thoughts. Just complaining about the new reality is not likely to lead to any solutions.

Mr. Snyder has posed an issue for which aviation needs to find a practical solution. Above is one thought, however superficial; maybe others have better ideas. LET’S HEAR THEM!!!

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