(Adds comment on regionals)
By Karen Jacobs
WASHINGTON, April 3 The chief executive of discount carrier Spirit Airlines said on Thursday he has no concerns about pilot availability in United States for the next couple of years, but is worried about staffing in the longer term.
"We're actively hiring pilots now, and we are currently not having a problem attracting qualified pilots," Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said in an interview at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's aviation summit in Washington.
The Miramar, Florida-based carrier has "a pretty strong pipeline of pilot availability" right now, he said.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect last summer require U.S. pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time to operate commercial jets or cargo planes, up from 250 hours previously required for co-pilots. Airlines also must comply with additional rules that took effect this year requiring more rest for U.S. pilots.
Baldanza said the rules on pilot experience would mainly hurt regional airlines. Regional carrier Republic Airways Holdings said in February that its pre-tax income would be reduced this year because it decided not to extend leases on 27 planes due to a scarcity of qualified pilots.
"I do think it's reasonable to expect that the regional industry will get smaller, and there will be fewer airlines and fewer regional airplanes and that's going to mean the same thing for smaller cities that consolidation did for big cities," Baldanza said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office warned in February that regional airlines are having a hard time finding pilots because of low wages and the rules mandating more experience for entry-level aviators.
Baldanza also said Spirit, which offers low base fares but charges for many other options, hopes to acquire gates at airports in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles that American Airlines Group agreed to relinquish as part of its merger agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.
"We've put our case forward and that process is being reviewed now, and we're hopeful that we're able to at least get some of those assets," Baldanza said.
"I would be very disappointed if we win nothing out of that. I would be surprised if we won all of it." (Reporting by Karen Jacobs, editing by Ros Krasny, Susan Heavey and Richard Chang)