Many employees, investors and industry observers are wondering which airlines will falter as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages airlines. Name an airline and I am sure you can find an article on why it won’t make it. No one truly knows which, if any, airlines will go under. However, writing negative articles on airlines is extraordinarily vogue, and the pandemic isn’t about to earn any corporation’s sympathy.
Looking ahead, I do believe one segment of the industry will respond to this pandemic positively and it may have significant meaning for those looking to become an airline pilot in the future. I believe when this pandemic passes, the segment of our industry which has proliferated in the past will continue to prosper.
The U.S. domestic air travel market is deemed a ‘mature’ market, meaning that it has stabilized in its current makeup. ‘Mature’ insinuates that the players we have today – Delta, American, Southwest, United, et al – will continue to dominate. Recent history has shown just that; the United States hasn’t seen a startup airline since Virgin America in 2007. Yet CAPA data shows that U.S.-based, domestic, low-cost carriers (LCC) have grown their market share from 28% to 32% from 2009 to 2018; a paltry number considering capacity in Europe hovers around 41%, up 78% in the same period. What this does show is that LCCs have a lot of upside still available.
History has been favorable to the LCCs that often sport simplified operating models, lower costs, higher productivity and connection-free itineraries. History looks ready to repeat itself as Southwest, Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier look to ramp up schedules and introduce new destinations in the wake left behind by the Big Three.
Factor into this that Breeze Airways, spearheaded by JetBlue and Azul founder David Neelemen, is continuing ahead with its plans to begin operations in 2020/2021. Another low-cost carrier, this time geared to the higher-end customer, a la JetBlue. 2021 is looking to have fewer passengers, fewer international destinations and more competition – a recipe for an industry shakeup.
The reason I bring this up is that many people view flying for the LCCs as a stepping stone to “bigger and better things.” If we peg our success to working for a specific carrier, we may find our careers less enjoyable. Rather, if we root our decision making in quality of life, personal connections and community involvement, some may find the biggest airlines are not always the best airlines. Times like these are an opportunity for pilots to evaluate what we value in our careers and our lives.
Seniority is king in this business. Leaving a regional for an upstart like Breeze is a risky move, but those who take the leap may end up in the top 10% of their seniority list for decades – something that is impossible at established airlines.
Spirit and Frontier were growing rapidly before this pandemic; they’ve made clear that they intend to continue that trend. For those starting later in their careers, the rapid upgrades afforded by these upstart LCCs allow them to reach the left seat sooner.
Allegiant Air, which has hubs in smaller secondary cities around the nation and operates a turn-only type model, offers the chance to be home daily, rather than commuting to large cities for work. Many with younger children or ties to smaller towns find this appealing.
These airlines, along with the countless charter, corporate and cargo companies, offer a variety of opportunities for work-life balance. Do not misunderstand me, there is merit to working at larger airlines; oftentimes with better benefits, more overall time off, diverse flying schedules, variety of aircraft, social status, etc.; but the industry at large can offer nearly similar packages to pilots. A long, prosperous airline career depends on more than having a seat in the jet. It requires good health, a supportive family, time for hobbies, and travel. Those who are learning to fly today should take an honest look at what they value in life and determine whether other airlines can meet those needs. In the near future, a lot of opportunities are forecasted to arise in the LCC segment and opportunistic pilots may find their dreams fulfilled if they act.