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Shortage of US pilots forces airlines to cut flights and seek solutions

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

Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images

The United States is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travelers return after more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis pushes the industry to seek solutions.

At least one lawmaker is reportedly considering legislation that could raise the federally mandated retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 or older to extend airmen’s time in the skies.

A regional airline has offered to reduce flight hour requirements before joining a US carrier, and airlines are redesigning training programs to lower the barrier to entry. Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines joined other major carriers in removing a four-year degree from its pilot hiring requirements.

Several American airlines, including Frontier, recruit Australian pilots. American Airlines sells bus tickets for certain short routes.

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

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines simply won’t be able to meet their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the five next few years,” said Scott, CEO of United Airlines. Kirby said on a quarterly earnings call in April.

Kirby estimated that the regional airlines United currently works with have around 150 planes grounded due to pilot shortages.

The roots of the crisis

The Covid pandemic halted the hiring of pilots as training and licensing slowed. Distributed airlines early retirement packages to thousands of pilots and other employees aimed to reduce labor bills when travel demand slumped at the height of the crisis.

“I feel like I’ve gone to the top,” said a former captain of a major US airline who took early retirement in 2020.

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

Major U.S. airlines are trying to hire more than 12,000 pilots combined this year alone, more than double the previous record for annual hiring, according to Kit Darby, pilot compensation consultant and retired United captain.

The shortage is particularly acute among regional carriers that feed major airline hubs from smaller cities. Although hiring and retention bonuses have returned to these airlines, salaries there are lower than those of the majors, and they are recruiting aggressively from these smaller carriers.

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

“We’ve never probed attrition levels like this,” Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein said. “If we don’t fly our planes, we lose money. You’ve seen our quarterly numbers.”

It takes Mesa about 120 days to replace a pilot who gives two weeks’ notice to go to another airline, according to Ornstein.

“We could use 200 pilots right now,” he said.

Some carriers like Frontier and regional airline SkyWest are recruiting Australian pilots on a special visa to help make up the shortfall, but the numbers are low compared to their overall rankings and hiring targets.

Regional carrier Republic Airways, which flies for American, Delta and United, asked the US government last month to allow pilots to fly for the airline with 750 hours, half of the 1,500 currently required, if they follow the carrier’s training program. There are already exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule, such as for US military-trained pilots and those in two- and four-year programs that include flight training.

The proposal was rejected by family members of the victims of the Colgan Air 3407 crash in 2009, the last fatal accident for a US commercial airline. The tragedy killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground, and ushered in the so-called 1,500-hour rule, aimed at guaranteeing pilot experience.

Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., is considering introducing congressional legislation that could raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots to at least 67 from the current age of 65, according to reports. people familiar with Graham’s plans. About a third of qualified airline pilots in the United States are between the ages of 51 and 59, and 13% of airline pilots nationwide will reach retirement age within five years, according to the Regional Airline Association.

Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Slowed growth

Shortages of pilots and other workers have forced airlines to rethink their growth plans. JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are among carriers that have recently cut capacity.

SkyWest, for its part, told the Department for Transport it plans to cut service in 29 smaller towns that the government subsidizes through essential air service.

The service cuts could isolate smaller US cities, but Darby, the pilot compensation consultant, said it could mean an opening for smaller competitors who aren’t as reliant on regional airlines as they are on larger network airlines.

“If they don’t fly it, maybe a smaller airline will,” he said.

One of the biggest barriers to hiring new pilots is the cost of tuition. While salaries for jumbo jet captains at major airlines can exceed $350,000 a year, it takes years to qualify.

At the ATP Flight School, the largest in the country, it costs nearly $92,000 for a full-time, seven-month program to earn initial licenses. It can then take around 18 months or more for pilots to rack up enough flying hours, often training student pilots or sometimes flying banners near beaches.

“It’s not a car wash,” Darby said. “You can’t just bring someone in from the street.”

In December, United began teaching the first students at its own flight school, the United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona, with the goal of training 5,000 pilots there by 2030. United says it aims that half of that number are women or people. of color. The company covers the cost of pilot training until they obtain their private pilot license, which it estimates at around $17,000 per student.

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

“There’s no quick fix,” Darby said.