For two years, Jayne Hoagland, a 41-year-old veterinarian turned flyer, has piloted planes for Colgan Airways of Manassas, a small commuter airline that flies to out-of-the-way places such as Elkins, W. Va.
For Hoagland, the opportunity to be a pilot outweighs the $20,000-a-year salary and the repetitive runs to remote airports that are the life of commuter airline crews.
But finding pilots like her is getting harder and harder, because the booming big airlines are luring pilots away from smaller carriers with promises of higher pay, exotic destinations and the chance to be a jet jockey.
"We lost 73 out of our 186 pilots to the major airlines this year. That's a terrific loss," said Richard A. Henson, president of Henson Airlines of Salisbury, Md., a subsidiary of Piedmont Airlines.
Henson announced this week that it is cutting three of seven daily round-trip flights from Shenandoah Valley airport at Weyers Cave, Va., because there aren't enough pilots. The cuts will affect flights to Baltimore, Norfolk, Hagerstown, New Bern, N.C., White Plains, N.Y., and Wilkes Barre, Pa.
"The regional carriers, of which we are one of the largest, have been the prime hiring ground for the majors," Henson said when he announced the cancellation of the flights in an advertisement in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record.
American Eagle, the commuter line formerly called Air Virginia that became a subsidiary of American Airlines in May, loses 5 percent of its pilots a month, the Associated Press reported. And Colgan Airways said some of its pilots are being lured away by the higher salaries that bigger carriers can pay.
A commuter captain's salary ranges from $18,000 to $22,000 a year, while an experienced pilot for a major airline can command a salary of more than $100,000, according to Charles J. Colgan, president of Colgan Airways.
"You can't justify the salary of a pilot who flies a 150-seater plane for a commuter pilot who flies a 30-seater," said Colgan. He said the larger plane simply has more passengers to contribute to paying the salaries for the crew.
In contrast to the six-figure income and frequent time off of pilots who fly long distances, the average commuter airline pilot is paid between $15,000 to $18,000, estimated a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.
But it is the thrill and prestige of flying a jet that pulls most commuter pilots away from the tiny turboprops. "They want to fly heavy iron," Henson said.
"There's nothing like flying a big airplane" Colgan agreed. "I would not fly a Beech 99 if I could move up to a DC9."
Henson attributes the pilot shortage to the tremendous growth in new airlines since deregulation in 1978. "Existing airlines have expanded their aircraft fleets and route structure," Henson said. "Unfortunately, this growth has also increased the need among the major carriers for qualified pilots."
The growth of the commuter airline industry also has skyrocketed since deregulation because the major carriers no longer are required to fly unprofitable routes and the regional airlines have moved in to pick up communities discarded by the majors. Some of the flights, such as the Washington-Elkins, W. Va. route, now are partially subsidized by the government.
Growing small airlines such as American Eagle and Ransome helped commuter flights carry 26.1 million passengers last year, compared with 11.3 million in 1978, according to the Regional Airline Association.
Regional airlines have some of the best pilots in the country and have become the prime pilot-hiring ground for the major jet carriers, Henson wrote in his newspaper ad, which was in the form of a letter addressed to Shenandoah Valley residents.
Pilots trained during military service have been a primary source of major airline pilots, but those numbers have dropped drastically. In the mid-1970s, between 4,000 and 5,000 pilots trained during the Vietnam war could leave the service annually; but now only about 500 to 600 can, said Louis Smith, president of Atlanta-based Future Aviation Professionals of America, a principal source of statistical information about the industry.
"I think the day is coming when majors like American Airlines are going to have to set up a trading academy, take people out of high school or college and train them to be pilots like the Air Force and the Navy do," Henson said. "They can't continually rob the regionals and expect them to perform."
The Regional Airlines Association members are concerned about the pilot shortage and the problem is being reviewed by the trade group's board of directors, an association spokeswoman said.
Still, there are some commuter pilots, such as Hoagland, who are not tempted by by the huge salary hikes and prestige of the majors.
"I just like commuter flying more," Hoagland said. "It's closer to real flying.