LARA MAGAZINE AN INTERVIEW WITH COMMUTAIR’S EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, JOHN SULLIVAN BY MARK THOMAS

Another of the US Regionals that has undergone a dramatic fleet transition is Cleveland-based CommutAir, which has had United as a minority shareholder for a couple of years now.

John Sullivan, CEO and owner said it had been “fortunate to have United join us and give us a pretty large project”

That project was to gain certification for the Embraer E145 jet and then proceed to switch its fleet, which had been all-turboprop until that time with Q200s and Q300s, over to the E145s over a seven-year period.

“We are two years into the project now and have almost completed the elimination of the turboprops- the last one is in the schedule for January 2018. Following that we will continue the uptake of Embraers over the next year, and the ultimate fleet size is targeted to be 60 aircraft. All are being leased from United Airlines.

“The end result is a single aircraft type, which is much more effective and efficient, with higher dispatch reliability. Jets are much more effective that way,” said Sullivan. He also hinted that it is aiming to potentially move to “slightly larger jets” in due course. “As far as how long we can operate these E145s, United is the head lessee, so when those leases expire there will either be a renewal or there will be a new aircraft, in approximately 2020” he added.

His take on the pilot shortage was that, like Piedmont’s Hogg, a clear (and fairly rapid) route to a network carrier helps, with a career path programme, with United Airlines is working well so far. “No one is getting as many pilots as they’d like, and we have a pretty big appetite. Fortunately, we are working to cross pilots over from our turboprops to jet operations, so we have a pretty full schoolhouse,” he commented. “Over the past year we’ve been competing with everyone else, with signing bonuses and retention bonuses, as we anticipate being pretty aggressive on that. We also offer rapid advancement. Pilots come to CommutAir, and they know they won’t have to wait very long to move from the right seat to the left seat.”

Starting Over Again

Sullivan also raised the pilot issue again when asked what would be the biggest issues with starting a new airline today.

“If one were to start an airline in this environment, the biggest challenge would be the pilot supply, and you would be wading into significant challenges and problems. I think it’s not going to get better quickly. We haven’t reached, in my opinion, the apex of the aged 65 ‘retirement bulge’. The most recent view takes it up to 2020, so the problems get worse up until then,” he said.

“When I started, the largest problems were more about the fleet size. Back then there was not a suitable aircraft being made for use in the US that had more than 20 seats. So people were using older equipment. Then in the 1980s solutions appeared, several manufacturers all at once made aircraft in the 30-seat range available, so that was a good period for us as we had choices.

“I think that many reoccur in the future because a lot of airlines have grown, but because a lot of the airlines have grown, but as aircraft size and average stage length grown, there’s a lot of market share being left behind. Usually when that happens, there’s some backfilling that goes on. And some manufacture or manufactures come up with a new aircraft to address the market share that’s been vacated. I think that’s going to happen again.”

And the biggest issue, in his opinion? “Back then it was a fleet issue – how could you get an aircraft that was suitable for your mission, and get it financed? Now it’s `how do you get pilots’?”