Following years of uncertainty with parent-company bankruptcies and consolidations, Piedmont Airlines has finally emerged as a significant player within the new American Airlines Group (AAG). And with the promise of new aircraft coupled with growth opportunities—in the form of both expedient upgrades and a negotiated flow-through agreement—Piedmont pilots are beginning to reap the benefits.
Piedmont is in the process of supplementing its fleet of 37 De Havilland Dash 8s with 20 Embraer ERJ 145s. The carrier already has one of these new jets sitting on the ramp at Salisbury–Ocean City–Wicomico Regional Airport, in Salisbury, Md., where the airline is based. However, that particular airplane is being used for training purposes. Piedmont anticipates delivery of a new jet each month beginning in February, which the carrier will immediately place into service at its brand-new pilot base.
Up until last month, Piedmont maintained pilot domiciles at Salisbury; Harrisburg, Pa.; Roanoke and Charlottesville, Va.; and New Bern, N.C. However, with the new fleet make-up, the airline opted to close Charlottesville and New Bern and create a new base at American Airlines’ mid-Atlantic hub in Philadelphia, Pa. The domicile opened in January as a Dash 8 operation and will expand to include ERJ 145s beginning in February.
Transitioning to a new fleet type is affecting nearly every aspect of the carrier’s operation. “The FAA is virtually recertifying Piedmont Airlines,” said Capt. Bruce Freedman, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman, one of the first pilots slated to transition to the ERJ 145. According to Freedman, the FAA has kept the airline busy, carefully reviewing all of its manuals and policies.
The growth in Piedmont’s fleet has also increased the airline’s demand for new pilots. Piedmont was able to sustain monthly new-hire classes of between 15 to 20 pilots during much of 2015. Freedman noted that the Piedmont pilot roster has expanded significantly since last year. However, the airline has been losing some pilots due to attrition.
One of the big draws to Piedmont for new hires is the seniority-based, flow-through program the pilots negotiated through Letter of Agreement 19. The agreement allows senior Piedmont pilots to flow to fellow AAG carrier American Airlines, based on available pilot job opportunities, without having to undergo the normal hiring process.
“The flow is working well,” noted Freedman, who added, “right now, we have pilots transitioning to American every month.” The growth from added equipment will likely mean an expansion of Piedmont’s route structure. Meanwhile, first officers are upgrading to captain at Piedmont usually within two years.
But despite these positive changes, members of the Piedmont MEC share some concerns. “With the constant turnover, we’re losing talent,” observed Freedman. “The pool of potential candidates for staffing various MEC committees is drying up because those with experience are retiring or moving on to the mainline.” Other fee-for-departure (FFD) pilot groups are witnessing this same trend, and Freedman said that they’re collectively working through the Association’s national FFD Committee, considering solutions such as sharing committee workloads among pilot groups in a code-share or other relationship.
Change isn’t limited to operational growth at Piedmont. The airline in May 2015 appointed a new president, Lyle Hogg, who previously held the position of US Airways vice president of Flight Operations. Later this year, Piedmont will introduce electronic flight displays—pilots will be issued iPads, eventually eliminating the need for paper flight manuals and charts.
Providing stability amid this evolving environment, the Piedmont pilots continue to enjoy the advantages of a favorable contract negotiated in 2014, which secured pay, benefit, and other quality-of-life improvements.
“The pilot group is guardedly enthusiastic that the airline appears to have more direction,” said Freedman. “Getting the jet equipment gives our senior pilots who aren’t going to take the flow through something to look forward to. It makes them feel like the airline will be here when they retire so that they will be able to collect their pensions. It also gives the younger members something to be happy about, knowing that they can upgrade faster,” he said.