A new Piedmont E145 sits on the ramp at Harrisburg International Airport.
It’s fair to say that the pilots of Piedmont Airlines have been experiencing the same challenges as pilots from other North American fee-for-departure (FFD) carriers—but with a twist. While many regional airlines find themselves needing to attract new-hire pilots to make up for those moving to mainline operations, Piedmont is also in the process of transitioning from turboprops to an all-jet fleet.
Not surprisingly, the change from Dash 8s to E145s has significantly increased the airline’s workload, affecting issues ranging from the carrier’s evolving route structure to efforts to open a new maintenance facility in Richmond, Va. Capt. Bruce Freedman, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman, noted that throughout 2016, the pilot group was busy negotiating letters of agreement (LOAs) to help address the many issues this changeover has produced.
Contract improvements include LOA 23, which addresses pay, staffing, and operation of the new E145s, as well as LOA 25, which incentivizes pilots to continue flying the Dash 8 while it remains on the property.
“We’re scheduled to receive a minimum of 20 jets but are expecting a total closer to 30,” said Freedman. With this growth, the Dash 8 crew base in Harrisburg, Pa., is closing in February. The Dash 8 pilot domiciles are scheduled to be phased out in Salisbury, Md., and Philadelphia, Pa., by the end of 2017, and the Roanoke, Va., base will close sometime in 2018. Currently, Piedmont’s only E145 pilot domicile is in Philadelphia.
The airline projects that its pilot ranks will need to grow from the 475 aviators it has now to 600 by the end of 2017. To train these new hires, Piedmont is using E145 desktop training stations coupled with a full-size Embraer cabin trainer at its training facility in Charlotte, N.C., until an E145 full-motion simulator is installed later this year.
Freedman noted that while Piedmont has been training 20-plus pilots a month, it’s also been forced to contend with attrition. In addition to those who have independently left the company to pursue other flying opportunities, as many as four senior pilots are transitioning to American Airlines a month as part of a flow-through agreement that the pilots negotiated with the carrier.
To entice recruits, last year the pilots and management negotiated LOA 24 to enhance the pilot recruitment incentive program. First-year first officers now earn third-year E145 pay rates. On their first anniversaries, these pilots then jump to fourth-year E145 rates. In addition, there’s a $15,000 signing bonus for new hires, with another $5,000 for pilots who have previous FAR Part 121 flying experience. As part of the LOA, the pilots also negotiated a new retention bonus program for veteran first officers and captains, comparable to what other FFD airlines provide.
Even with all of this activity, Freedman acknowledged that the pilots’ relationship with management is not as cordial and open as it has been in recent years. He noted that the company has been preoccupied with the introduction of the jet program, adding, “We don’t have a lot of grievances at this time, but we’ve faced our share of problems and have been pushed to the edge on several occasions.”
Freedman said that one of the biggest challenges for the pilot group has been balancing the priorities of the junior pilots, many of whom view Piedmont as a stepping-stone, with more senior members who plan to retire from the carrier. He remains hopeful that with the ongoing turnover in the MEC committee ranks newer members will recognize the importance the committees play and—like their recent peers—get involved.
“Even if your plan is to flow up to American as fast as possible, I encourage our more junior members to learn more about this union and to give something back to the larger pilot group by volunteering while they’re here,” Freedman said.