Written by Staff Writer
Virgin America flight attendants are raising an alarm about their airline’s pilot shortage. That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is requiring that pilots be at least at 1,500 hours of flying time before taking the controls of an airplane.
For new pilots, the required hours to reach the required maximum time with an airline now amounts to seven years of training, which they must complete within two years. If new pilots want to become Virgin America flight attendants, they need to meet the same standards, a trip they say is not possible for many of their co-workers.
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Elizabeth Woodside is a Virgin America flight attendant whose concerns were partly addressed in a letter, signed by more than 900 crewmembers, posted online earlier this month. In it, Woodside urged management to think twice before pushing pilots to reach the 500-hour level, warning that most new pilots “have no desire to work for a large company.”
If the FAA mandates minimum aircraft hours across airlines, then “the industry, no matter how we like to spin it, will take a significantly adverse hit,” she said.
People in the aviation industry appear to agree that a shortage of pilots could be bad news. A number of airlines, including American Airlines, have warned of difficulties finding new pilots, and United Continental Holdings recently announced that starting salaries for pilots with 10 years of service would rise $2,000 to around $135,000 — a range airlines say is not enough to attract new hires.
Flight attendants agree. When they join Virgin America, the crew members get a 5% raise, and their average flight time on board is around 3,000 hours, said Ashley Balzer, a flight attendant at Virgin America.
But when Virgin America’s crew comes back for their first day of work, they must undergo an onboard training course, roughly two hours long. Virgin America pays $2,700 for the training, which is split between the crew and their employer.
“Pilots must fly, do the work and the training. We can’t stay in training the entire time they’re training,” Balzer said.
Flight attendants are unionized, and Woodside’s concerns were raised at an annual meeting last week.
Balzer is on the flight-attendant team that discussed the issue, and was not surprised by her colleagues’ concerns.
“These are the people who are out there every day. They see what the impact of the 1,500 hour rule could be on their co-workers and their co-workers’ families,” she said.
“I think everyone agreed we needed to do something,” she said.
“We all thought that we should all be able to move on with our lives, and if we can’t do that as flight attendants, then we shouldn’t be here,” Balzer said.
“It’s just really unfortunate that we had to jump in and deal with this now.”