Male airline passengers of a certain age can be forgiven if they’re disappointed by not being greeted by provocatively dressed flight attendants when they board a PSA Airlines flight these days.
And as hard as they might look, they won’t find a smile curling up under the nose of the aircraft as part of its livery. That was a different time and a different place. And, it turns out, a different airline.
Dion Flannery, the current president of PSA Airlines, says he’s heard it all a thousand times.
The freewheeling PSA that made a name for itself in California in the 1960s and 1970s entered the history books after being acquired by what was then USAir in 1988.
The current PSA Airlines, currently headquartered in Dayton, Ohio, has a more staid and stable history, tracing its roots back to western Pennsylvania where it started as a commuter airline before being acquired by Piedmont Airlines in 1986 and relocating to Piedmont’s hub in Dayton.
Piedmont itself eventually merged with USAir. By the late 1990s, what had begun as a small Pennsylvania commuter was operating as US Airways Express and had its name changed to PSA by its parent company for copyright reasons.
The most recent change affecting PSA occurred in December 2013, with the merger of US Airways and American Airlines.
Almost immediately, the new American Airlines Group announced a large order for regional aircraft that included 30 CRJ 900 NextGen aircraft targeted for PSA. American in 2015 reaffirmed its commitment to PSA by announcing it was exercising its option for an additional 24 CRJ 900 NextGen aircraft.
Since 2014, PSA has more than doubled its size from 49 to 115 aircraft and plans to soon be flying 150 Bombardier CRJ aircraft. The current age of the fleet is 2.8 years. The leap in size has made PSA the fastest growing regional carrier in the nation.
Currently, PSA has about 681 departures a day system-wide. Serving 93 destinations, PSA has 257 peak day departures from Charlotte, American’s second-busiest hub after Dallas, along with 51 from Washington Reagan National Airport and 22 from Philadelphia.
Last year, the regional carrier had 10.67 million enplanements.
In August, Flannery marked his second anniversary with the airline, having previously served as president of US Airways Express.
Dealing with change has been the biggest challenge he and his team have faced, the PSA chief said.
“The airline was well-run and well-managed with 50 aircraft in a fairly static environment, and then it was asked to very quickly grow with particular aircraft and flying to new locations,” he said.
Dealing with the growth, which Flannery characterized as “explosive”, was demanding.
“Getting people to embrace that change, intellectually, is really difficult,” Flannery said. “Everybody says they’re ready, and everybody want to be ready, but it’s difficult.
“And we’re in an environment now that is very different than before,” he continued.
“We’re asked, rightfully, by American to run an airline with higher levels of reliability than regionals have historically provided major carriers, and we’re asked to do it at the same time we’re growing 50 percent per year.”
The greatest challenge laying ahead for PSA and other regionals is acquiring pilots, according to Flannery.
There is currently a large crop of pilots for major carriers either retiring or nearing mandatory retirement at age 65 Those openings offer great career enhancement opportunities for pilots flying at the regional level who want to step up to a major carrier, Flannery explained.
At the same time, he added: “We’re having much more difficulty getting people to enter into commercial aviation as a career by virtue of the expense and the time it takes to acquire hours to qualify to be a first officer.”
To combat the chronic shortage, PSA signed a contract in 2014 that included a flow-through provision that enables about 60 pilots a year to move to American. That number can increase to 100 if PSA continues to increase its pilot workforce, which now stands at about 1,200. Top pay for a veteran PSA pilot is about $108,000 annually.
Senior pilots flying wide-bodies for mainline carriers can expect to make roughly two-and-a-half times that much, he noted.
The PSA president acknowledged there is a “substantial arms race is under way” between his airline and other regionals to attract candidates. As a result, pay for a first-year pilot at a regional carrier has more than doubled in recent years.
Flannery said his company gets 150 to 200 applications a month, and hired 250 to 400 pilots last year. He noted that the airline is seeing a different type of candidate applying for a pilot’s job.
“We are getting folks who are coming back to us as a second career… folks who have the hours per se but probably don’t have the same level of training” as other candidates, such as four years of education in a heavily structured aviation program.
“As a result, we see a higher failure rate among those folks who come to us as a second career or perhaps are returning to the industry 15 years removed from it,” Flannery said.
And, Flannery noted, it’s becoming increasing difficult for regional airlines to attract millennials to pursue a career in aviation.
Flannery said one of the challenges facing regionals trying to recruit new pilots is that a new generation of workers has different expectations of what they want from a job.
“We have to be very cognizant of the fact that millennials value work differently than my generation,” he said. “They don’t want to be bound in a desk and a chair, and they want to be more connected with the environment and the community … and they’re not willing to say ‘I’ll work 65 hours or 70 hours a week for you because I’m part of the organization.’ We’re mindful of that.”
Flannery was also critical of the current first officer qualification requiring a co-pilot to have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, with 1,500 hours total time as a pilot. Previously, first officers were required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which required 250 hours of flight time.
The PSA chief said he believed that the regulation, unveiled in 2013, “was put into effect with good intention” but has led many potential pilots to question whether they’re willing to commit the time and effort to reach the necessary level of training.
Flannery dismissed concerns that the industry may have over-extended itself in recent years, even as several major mainline carriers have indicated they plan to reduce capacity.
“We still believe that the domestic system is healthy, and while there might be some threats and some disturbances in the longer haul trans-Atlantic market and economic weakness in Latin American, the domestic markets are still pretty good,” he said.
Flannery said it was “hard to tell” when PSA Airlines would resume acquiring aircraft. “We’re due to resume the transfer of aircraft from a sister wholly owned American subsidiary in 2017,” with PSA Airlines eventually boasting a fleet of 150 aircraft. How long it will take for that to happen, however, depends on PSA’s ability to attract adequate staffing to handle the expansion.
Still, Flannery said, PSA’s ultimate goal remains steadfast.
“We’re on a mission to be as large as we can as fast as we can,” he said.