Due to a shortage of first officers, Grady Huron (left) and Justin Demer, friends and ExpressJet captains, fly a trip together out of Newark Liberty International Airport.

For the last few years, ExpressJet pilots have endured rather uncertain times. A sluggish merger, increased industry competition, and significant fleet and staffing reductions fueled by high pilot attrition have left the ExpressJet Master Executive Council (MEC) and ExpressJet pilots wondering what the future of their airline will look like. Although several major events in 2017 made that future a bit clearer, the ExpressJet MEC and its pilot group continue to proceed with caution.

For the ExpressJet MEC, 2017 began quietly with the group operating separately from merger partner Atlantic Southeast Airlines under a short-term contract extension signed in early 2016. Although temporarily relieved of the requirement to conduct joint negotiations, both ExpressJet and Atlantic Southeast MEC leaders spent much of the year working closely together to prepare for the groups’ upcoming challenges, particularly staffing.

As part of parent company SkyWest, Inc.’s financial strategy, ExpressJet released nearly 70 aircraft in 2017 that were operating under unprofitable contracts with major partner United Airlines. This large reduction was accompanied by massive pilot attrition, keeping staffing roughly at required levels throughout the year. Any plateau or increase in the fleet size, however, was expected to create a unique challenge for the company.

The ExpressJet MEC received some help in June when the company announced signing and retention bonuses for ExpressJet pilots. Capt. John Miclau, the ExpressJet MEC chairman, was quick to point out that this was just the first piece of a multipart solution that would be required to make ExpressJet a viable and attractive workplace for the pilot group moving forward.

“Although finances play a very important role in attracting and retaining quality pilots, it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” said Miclau. “Our airline desperately needed a defined, long-term future and a stable fleet plan in order to succeed.”

ExpressJet’s future, and the pilot groups’ long-delayed merger, gained some more definition in August, when the company announced that it had signed a new, profitable five-year capacity purchase agreement with United to fly as many as 126 ERJ 145s, an increase from the current fleet size. This announcement, however, also came with the news that Atlantic Southeast’s contract with Delta Air Lines would terminate by the end of 2018. To preserve as many Atlantic Southeast jobs as possible while also creating a pool of pilots to staff the new United agreement, the ExpressJet and Atlantic Southeast MECs negotiated and implemented an integrated pilot seniority list, officially completing the merger of the two pilot groups that began in 2010.

“History will show this as a tale of two pilot groups…operated by a company that couldn’t make future plans because of the instability of the pilot labor supply,” said Capt. Dave Allen, the former ExpressJet MEC chairman, and Capt. Chromer Smith, the Atlantic Southeast MEC chairman, in a joint statement to their pilot groups following the announcement. “Our two pilot groups have now become lifeboats for each other. Lashed together, we will be a pilot force 2,100 strong operated by a company that now has the ability to look into the future to gain more flying for all of us.”

Legacy Atlantic Southeast CRJ pilots flying in the Delta operation began training on the ERJ 145 for United operations in November. The transfer will continue throughout 2018 until the Delta operation is completely closed.

“The turn of events we saw in 2017 is clearly not part of the best-case scenario any ExpressJet pilot had hoped for,” explained Miclau. “However, both the Atlantic Southeast and ExpressJet MECs are committed to working to best protect our pilots’ careers as ExpressJet looks to the future.”