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U.S. pilot shortage forces airlines to chop flights, scramble for solutions

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Airline pilots walk through the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on December 27, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images

The US is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to chop flights just as travelers are returning after greater than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis has the industry scrambling for solutions.

Not less than one lawmaker is claimed to be considering laws that might raise the federally-mandated retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 or higher to increase aviators’ time within the skies.

A regional airline proposed reducing flight-hour requirements before joining a U.S. carrier, and airlines are rethinking training programs to lower the barrier to entry. Earlier this yr, Delta Air Lines joined other big carriers in dropping a four-year degree from its pilot hiring requirements.

Several U.S. airlines, including Frontier, are recruiting some pilots from Australia. American Airlines is selling bus tickets for some short routes.

But some airline executives warn the shortage could take years to unravel.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to have the ability to comprehend their capability plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at the very least not for the subsequent five-plus years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on a quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimated the regional airlines United works with currently have about 150 airplanes grounded due to the pilot shortage.

Roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic halted pilot hiring as training and licensing slowed. Airlines handed out early retirement packages to hundreds of pilots and other employees aimed to chop labor bills when travel demand cratered in the course of the depths of crisis.

“I feel like I walked away at the head,” said one former captain for a significant U.S. airline who took an early retirement package in 2020.

Now airlines are eager to hire and train pilots, but the push may take too long to avoid flight cuts.

Major U.S. airlines are attempting to rent greater than 12,000 pilots combined this yr alone, greater than double the previous record in annual hiring, in response to Kit Darby, a pilot pay consultant and a retired United captain.

The shortage is especially acute at regional carriers that feed major airlines’ hubs from smaller cities. While hiring and retention bonuses have returned at those airlines, pay is lower there than at majors, and so they are recruiting aggressively from those smaller carriers.

Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, which flies for American and United, lost nearly $43 million within the last quarter as flight cuts mounted.

“We never fathomed attrition levels like this,” said Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. “If we do not fly our airplanes we lose money. You saw our quarterly numbers.”

It takes Mesa an estimated 120 days to interchange a pilot who gives two weeks’ notice to go to a different airline, in response to Ornstein.

“We could use 200 pilots without delay,” he said.

Some carriers like Frontier and regional airline SkyWest are recruiting pilots from Australia under a special visa to assist ease the shortfall, however the numbers are small compared with their overall ranks and hiring goals.

Regional carrier Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, last month petitioned the U.S. government to permit pilots to fly for the airline with 750 hours, half of the 1,500 currently required, in the event that they undergo the carrier’s training program. There are already exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule, resembling for U.S.-military trained pilots and those that attend two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

The proposal has received pushback from members of the family of victims of 2009’s Colgan Air 3407 crash, the last fatal U.S. passenger business airline crash. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the bottom, and ushered within the so-called 1,500-hour rule, aimed toward ensuring pilot experience.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is considering introducing congressional laws that might raise the mandatory airline pilot retirement age to at the very least 67 from the present age of 65, in response to people acquainted with Graham’s plans. A couple of third of the airline-qualified pilots within the U.S. are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of the country’s airline pilots will reach retirement age throughout the five years, in response to the Regional Airline Association.

Graham’s office didn’t respond requests for comment.

Growth curtailed

Pilot and other employee shortages have forced airlines to rethink their growth plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are amongst carriers which have recently trimmed capability.

SkyWest, for its part, told the Transportation Department it plans to drop service to 29 smaller cities that the federal government subsidizes through the Essential Air Service.

Service reductions could isolate smaller U.S. cities but Darby, the pilot pay consultant, said it could mean a gap for smaller competitors that do not depend on regional airlines as much as major network airlines.

“In the event that they don’t fly it, perhaps a smaller airline will,” he said.

Certainly one of the most important hurdles to bringing in recent pilots is the associated fee of education. While salaries for widebody captains at major airlines can exceed $350,000 a yr, getting qualified takes years.

At ATP Flight School, the most important within the country, it costs near $92,000 for a seven-month, full-time program to get initial licenses. It may then take about 18 months or longer for pilots to accumulate enough hours to fly, often by instructing student pilots or sometimes by flying banners near beaches.

“It is not a automotive wash,” Darby said. “You’ll be able to’t just get someone to are available in from the road.”

In December, United began teaching the primary students at its own flight school, the United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with a goal of coaching 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says it goals for half of that number to be women or people of color. The corporate covers the associated fee of pilots’ training as much as the purpose of receiving their private pilots’ license, which it estimates to be around $17,000 per student.

Other carriers have turned to low-interest loans or other initiatives to ease the financial burden on students.

“There isn’t any quick fix,” Darby said.

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