U.S. regional carrier SkyWest will resume hiring pilots in the second quarter as it gets ready for what it expects to be a hot summer for the airline industry as leisure travelers flock to the airways for their summer vacations.
SkyWest did not specify how many employees it plans to hire, but the carrier already has begun hiring flight attendants and maintenance technicians. The regional took more than $200 million in the first two rounds of federal payroll support and expects a further $250 million from the third round in the next two months. These funds required SkyWest — and any carrier that took the funding — to pledge not to involuntarily furlough or reduce pay for any employees. SkyWest’s plans to hire signal that it thinks demand will grow torridly this summer. SkyWest has not furloughed any employees, although it did offer voluntary leaves of absence during the worst of the pandemic, a spokeswoman confirmed.
Before the pandemic, a looming pilot shortage concerned regional carriers, as a significant number of mainline pilots were expected to retire in the coming years. Changes to pilot-training requirements in the wake of the 2009 Colgan Air accident also put pressure on regional hiring plans. Because of these concerns, SkyWest had already set up a robust pilot-hiring pipeline before the pandemic, working with more than 300 flight-training schools and universities, CEO Chip Childs told analysts during the company’s first-quarter 2021 earnings call. Competition for pilots is expected to be fierce, as mainline airlines begin hiring again and new entrants, like Avelo and Breeze, step up their recruitment. But Childs is not concerned, saying he was “astonished” by the number of prospective pilots who have expressed interest in working for SkyWest.
SkyWest is sitting pretty for the recovery. It fills in the smaller spokes on its mainline partners’ route maps, and its network is primarily domestic. The pandemic has sparked a boom in people moving to smaller cities and rural areas, fueling demand for the regional’s flights.
This is also driving expenses. SkyWest reported higher maintenance costs in the quarter as it prepares for the peak season. First-quarter maintenance costs were $204 million, up from $160 million in the first quarter of last year. This includes bringing 25 CRJ 700s out of long-term storage to return to the American Airlines fleet. “Things like maintenance are going to continue to run hot as we bring new airplanes back into service again as we prepare for what’s shaping up to be a pretty busy summer,” Chief Financial Officer Robert Simmons said.
By number of aircraft, SkyWest is one of the largest airlines in the world, with 468 airplanes in its fleet at the end of the first quarter. In addition to these, SkyWest leases two CRJ 200s, 34 CRJ 700s, and five CRJ 900s to other carriers.
SkyWest ended the first quarter with a profit of $36 million on revenues of $535 million, down 27 percent from 2020. The company expects to be fully back to 2019 levels of flying by the end of the fourth quarter, provided the Covid-19 pandemic trends in the U.S. continue to hold.
This report has been updated with SkyWest’s comments on voluntary separation programs and to say that the carrier has begun hiring flight attendants and maintenance technicians.