Horizon Air closes the gap in pilot hiring

Kentaro Lemoto
A Horizon Air plane takes off

Skies are blue for the next crop of Pacific Northwest regional airline pilots.

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Over the past few years, a confluence of forces including the recession, Federal Aviation Administration rules and low wages drained pilots from smaller, regional airlines like Skywest and Horizon Air. Pilot shortages forced Horizon to cancel flights. Then the economy took off, oil prices dropped, and the regionals put more money on the table.

“There’s some financial incentives now that didn’t exist a few years ago,” says Carlos Zendejas, the chief pilot for Horizon who oversees the company’s recruiting efforts.

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The only regional with a significant Oregon presence, Horizon, an Alaska Airlines subsidiary, maintains a large operations center at the Portland Airport. The Seattle Times reported in 2017 that a pilot shortage forced the airline to cancel 600 flights in September, and another 700 in October.

This year the airline stepped up its recruiting efforts, beginning with wages and benefits. Starting pay soared from $30,000 a year to $40,000, plus signing bonuses of $10,000 to $25,000 for new recruits and 401K matching funds. That adds up to a total compensation package of around $80,000.

horizonairA Horizon Air jet | Photo by Kentaro Lemoto

Horizon also shortened the time it takes for pilots to advance their careers.

The regionals are the airline equivalents of minor league baseball teams. Pilots spend a few years there, then hope to progress to the big leagues, international carriers like Alaska Airlines and Delta. The hourly wage for a first-year first officer at Horizon ($40) is less than half the amount ($90) for parent company Alaska, according to Airline Pilot Central, a pilot career information website.

Horizon pilots used to languish for years in low-paying first officer positions, but now they can make captain as early as their second year, Zendejas says. Another program allows Horizon pilots an early interview with the parent company, Alaska. Zendejas says the goal is for around 50% of new Alaska pilots to come from Horizon.

The airline is on track with its hiring goals. It plans to hire 349 pilots in 2018, and has made 200 hires halfway through the year.

There are still challenges to overcome to build a sustainable talent pipeline. Portland does not number among the major aviation hubs, like Dallas, Atlanta or Seattle, says Louis Smith, president of Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a national career consulting service for pilots. That makes it difficult to attract talented pilots.

Horizon pays a chunk of pilots’ flight school bill, up to $7,500, but that just chips away at the total training costs of up to $80,000.

“They’re catching up,” Smith says, “But they’re having difficulty. They’re going to have to spend a lot more time and money.”

New hire bonuses also do little to ease the attrition rate of experienced pilots at the regionals. Zendejas says Horizon’s pilot staffing is tied to the need at major airlines. As the economy booms, the majors are taking more regional pilots, meaning they need to be replaced at a faster rate.

On the other hand, new sources of pilots have sprung up that didn’t exist a few years ago. The vast majority of pilots used to come from the military. Now, more civilian career changers are enrolling in flight schools, Smith says, hoping to move “from cubicles to cockpits.” He’s also seeing an uptick in “woodwork pilots,” discouraged aviators that are returning to the industry as wages and working conditions improve.

“It’s been a long time since the outlook has been so good for being a commercial pilot,” Zendejas says. “It’s not a bad time to be doing this.”

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