A Trans States airplane sits at the gate at Washington Dulles International Airport.
“Trans States is growing exponentially,” said Capt. Neil Butler, his pilot group’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman, noting that “we’ve added 25 planes since the end of 2015.” The airline has expanded its route structure from Maine to Utah, opening new bases in Denver, Colo., and Raleigh–Durham, N.C. The sky would seem to be the limit for this United Express and American Eagle carrier but for this stumbling block: the inability to attract and retain line pilots, so much so that it’s difficult for the MEC to maintain its pilot committee and leadership structure.
“We’re in the same situation as most U.S. fee-for-departure (FFD) airlines,” said Butler. “Management would like to run two new-hire classes a month with 20 pilots a piece, but we’re closer to eight total pilots per month. Couple this with attrition due to hiring at the mainline carriers, and you can see where the challenge lies,” he remarked.
Accordingly, Trans States has taken significant steps to improve the airline’s appeal to potential job candidates, which resulted in more than 100 pilots being hired last year.
Just three weeks after the pilots’ contract became amendable last summer, the pilots and management completed negotiations for a three-year extension that contained numerous improvements, including what was then the highest first-year, first officer pay rate ($35.81 per hour) in the U.S. regional airline industry. And the talks didn’t stop there. “We’re in the process of negotiating a competitive new-hire and retention bonus program,” said Butler. “We currently have one, but it’s not in line with the rest of the regional industry.”
In addition, Trans States has also been actively seeking new sources for pilot recruits. The airline has signed a partnership with Southern Illinois University and has been working with companies like Florida-based Epic Flight Academy to establish a pipeline for new recruits.
Butler acknowledged that the pilots have a good working relationship with management, noting that the current number of grievances is “manageable” and that the atmosphere “is not as punitive as it once was.” He attributed the difference to changes in management, including individuals like Director of Flight Operations Keith Stamper. “Keith and the rest of our management team seem more willing to work with us,” Butler commented.
The pilots and management continue to negotiate the terms of a letter of agreement to implement a preferential bidding system (PBS). A protocol letter of agreement signed in August 2016 allows for a six-month PBS trial period, after which pilots will vote whether to permanently implement PBS along with other contractual improvements. However, this situation has been complicated by the company’s implementation of IOCC, a pilot scheduling software, which has created additional hurdles for the pilot group’s Scheduling Committee.
Consequently, the majority of pilot grievances stem from scheduling and payroll issues, and management announced late last year that it was employing a third-party application to help solve pay transparency concerns. The pilot group’s November 21 MEC Update noted, “The e-mails we are receiving from pilots have proven instrumental in identifying and resolving the majority of these issues.”
The introduction of a new aircraft type is also on the airline’s horizon. In October 2009, Trans States Holdings, Inc.—which owns Trans States, Compass, and GoJet—announced plans to purchase 50 Mitsubishi MRJ90s with options to buy 50 more. This deal comes with a conversion clause, allowing the company to opt for the manufacturer’s smaller 76-seat MRJ70s. Of the 50 firm orders, Trans States is slated to receive 20, with deliveries slated for late 2018 or early 2019.