CommutAir Pilots
CommutAir pilot Hannah Speidel on her last Dash 8 flight as a first officer before beginning jet training and captain upgrade.

The pilots of CommutAir, who had their fair share of ups and downs in 2017, are taking on the new year flying an all-jet fleet. “It’s been a busy time for CommutAir. Our expansion is finally well under way after a great deal of struggle early in 2017,” said Capt. Earl Blowers, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman. The last scheduled Dash 8 flight out of Newark, N.J., occurred in late 2017, and the company plans to retire the aircraft from the CommutAir fleet in early January 2018, instead of the originally planned 2019. This change moves the airline to an all-jet fleet.

In October 2017, the MEC and CommutAir management signed a letter of agreement (LOA) that provides an extended compensation and a retention bonus for pilots. With the new agreement in place, CommutAir should be able to attract new pilots and retain those who are currently on the property. Among other benefits, first officers with one year of service will be paid Dash 8 captain rates. Dash 8 captains will receive jet captain rates, downgraded pilots will be pay protected, and all captains will receive a retention bonus totaling more than $10,000 over two years.

The pilots also recently maintained an adjusted controllable completion factor of 100 percent for October 2017. “According to management, it’s the first time that’s happened for CommutAir in more than a decade, which shows the progress we’ve made in the company’s expansion,” noted Blowers. “It indicates how far we’ve come since early 2017 when we were meeting very few of the performance metrics established by United Airlines,” he added.

Attracting and retaining pilots is the biggest challenge for many fee-for-departure (FFD) carriers, and despite the positive outcomes expected with the new LOA, CommutAir is no exception. Blowers believes getting pilots to the airline and keeping them will remain the biggest challenge in 2018. “Our career-progression program with United increases the percentage of pilots who leave CommutAir beginning in January,” Blowers explained. The program is a double-edged sword because it’s a useful tool for recruitment and retention, but also causes pilots to leave for their slots at United, which hurts staffing. “As larger companies offer more lucrative pay rates and bonuses,” said Blowers, “CommutAir will have to do what it can to stay competitive. Management is willing, but says it can only go so far.”

The pilot group is also seeking quality-of-life improvements that don’t involve direct compensation. “It’s difficult getting management to understand the need for quality-of-life improvements. Money is important, but going to work to earn it shouldn’t have to be a challenge,” Blowers acknowledged.

Related projects on the horizon include a FOQA program, which is a result of the five-year capacity purchase agreement with United Airlines to operate a fleet of Embraer 145 Regional Jets. Additionally, the pilot group hopes to trade in paper charts and cases for electronic flight bags in 2018. “The 145s took a great deal of resources over the past two years, and the electronic flight bags kept getting pushed back. We’re really excited to make the transition,” said Blowers.

Despite the challenges facing all FFD carriers, the CommutAir pilots look forward to continued growth and improvements in the upcoming year. “We anticipate that 2018 will be a busy year for the pilots and the airline,” observed Blowers.