The airline industry has been warning the world of an upcoming pilot shortage that has finally arrived. The first casualty is Essential Air Service cities, but who’s next?
SkyWest Airlines Discontinues 29 Routes
SkyWest, a regional carrier that flies on behalf of Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines has axed a number of routes this week. The regional airline flies more than most realize. With Delta alone, SkyWest operates more than 1,000 daily flights from major hubs like New York LaGuardia and Atlanta Hartfield International airport to communities too small to warrant larger mainline aircraft.
Due to a shortage of airline pilots, SkyWest has chosen to discontinue serving 29 cities, of which 28 have no other service. These are Essential Air Service cities for which the carrier receives a guaranteed minimum for flying those routes, usually going out with less than full cabins.
Following the airline bailout in 2020, one of the provisions was that the airlines could not stop service to these cities, however, now that carriers are outside of that period they have the option to cancel. SkyWest has served the required 90-day notice.
Some may be asking, why is there a pilot shortage? There are three principal reasons.
Pay vs. Education Cost
Flight schools are expensive. Some have advertised program costs as low as $67,000 to achieve a commercial pilot certificate. Average costs are typically closer to $130,000. Starting out pilots do not make much money. Pilots for SkyWest could make as little as $20/hour to start and they only get paid when the aircraft door closes; about $20,000-40,000 annually.
Carrying student debt loads that high with such low pay delivers fewer applicants for flight training.
Following the Colgan Air crash (3407) in 2009, reforms were made to require qualified pilots to achieve 1,500 hours of commercial flight time before ascending to flying passengers. The general career path to flying for a major airline begins with building hours as a flight instructor then on to regional carriers before landing a job at a mainline.
However, accruing 1,500 flight hours is essentially also part of the cost of a commercial pilot’s license as the wages for those flights are very low.
The additional hour requirement has been a major impediment to attracting new pilots given the time and financial barriers that already exist. For what it’s worth, while the prior requirements were potentially too low at 250 hours, both pilots in the fatal crash that resulted in the rule change had well over 1,500 hours in the cockpit at 2, 244 and 3,379 hours each.
The FAA imposes a limit of 65-years-old for pilots. While many remain in flying shape well after 65 and have a desire to work, they aren’t permitted to do so. Many pilots have called for an end to this, equally arbitrary, limitation. Fewer pilots have joined the ranks over the last few years because of some of the above reasons, but flying has also expanded globally thanks in large part to discount carriers. This has created a delta of not replacing pilots as they normally retire, then adding additional seats for pilots to fill.
Compounding the issue was a spate of early retirements offered by US flag carriers during the pandemic.
United, JetBlue, American, and Delta have partnered on their own pilot schools or co-opted programs to directly train new first officers. Some of these programs include tuition assistance or financing; all give a priority to graduates to move directly into the ranks of the airline. However, JetBlue’s program has been in place since 2016 and many others around the same time. That hasn’t fixed the problem but in time it may help.
Regional pilots will continue to be poached by mainline carriers who offer bigger equipment, more benefits, better pay, and more exciting destinations. Increasing the attractiveness of flying for connecting carriers will be more expensive than it is now but is necessary for their survival. Regional carriers like SkyWest will have to pass off those higher costs to mainline partners making the thinnest routes even less affordable for travelers but keeping them as a going concern.
Re-examining the mandatory retirement age with eyes to raising it would help in the interim and may even promote growth. A newly retired captain in Chicago might gladly pick up a few “lifestyle” flights that let them come home every night.
The US government will forgive student loans for teachers working in certain areas due to need after they have completed several years of service. Why couldn’t we do the same for pilots?
Lastly, the arbitrary number of 1,500 hours required to pilot a commercial airliner needs to go. While the cause of the Colgan Air crash may have been due to limited experience; if the 1,500 hour requirement were in place at the time, it wouldn’t have disqualified the pilots on that flight. Perhaps a temporary waiver would be a good stopgap to get more pilots in the sky with less than 1,500 hours.
Which Routes Are Next?
The first round of cuts is logical. If SkyWest wasn’t selling out EAS flights (likely were not) and those flights were defaulting to the minimum guarantees, then they were competing internally with more profitable routes. With the bigs running their own training operations and hiring directly therefrom, more cuts may be coming.
The next batch won’t be EAS cities in all likelihood or they would have made this list. It’s my assertion that the next routes to go will be intra-hub, especially in the Northeast corridor and west coast, specifically California, Oregon, and Washington. It will be far easier to upgrade flights between Newark and Boston for example, and consolidate by offering 1-2 fewer frequencies than to serve Dallas-Hattiesburg-Meridian, type routes.
This also creates an opportunity for ULCCs like Frontier/Spirit and Allegiant. Thrice weekly service on Frontier from Grand Island, NE to Denver (where passengers can make onward connections) or Allegiant once weekly from Sioux City, IA to Mesa, Arizona might help fill some gaps. While these won’t be regular enough to qualify for EAS service, it could still be enough to make the routes viable.
What do you think? Will the pilot shortage get worse before it gets better? Do these proposed changes seem likely to improve the situation? Is there something you’d recommend instead?