United Airlines is dropping 14 routes to its Washington Dulles hub as the regional pilot shortage in the U.S. gets worse.
The Chicago-based Star Alliance carrier will suspend service in March between Dulles and Akron-Canton, Ohio; Asheville, Greensboro, and Wilmington, N.C.; Bangor, Maine; Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, State College, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Milwaukee, Wis. None of the destinations will lose United service entirely, with five cities even gaining new service to Newark to replace the Dulles flights, and most say the airline intends to restore the routes in 2023.
United spokesperson Kimberly Gibbs said the changes were part of its continual effort to “closely match supply with demand.”
The cuts are the latest fallout from the worsening regional pilot shortage. Speaking a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on December 15, United CEO Scott Kirby said the airline’s regional affiliates had grounded more than 100 aircraft — most 50-seat regional jets — because there were not enough pilots to fly them. His comments followed similar ones he made at the Skift Aviation Forum in November, which came after the airline had already cut at least eight smaller destinations from its map due to a lack of crews.
And United isn’t alone. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker confirmed of regional pilot hiring issues at the Skift Forum as well. And Delta Air Lines is exiting at least three cities — Grand Junction, Colo., Lincoln, Neb., and Cody, Wyo. — and suspending another 10 routes, including ones to Des Moines, as well as to Lansing and Saginaw, Mich.
“There has been a looming pilot shortage in the U.S. for the last decade, and during the pandemic it became a shortage,” Kirby said at the hearing. Major carriers, like United, have been hiring up regional pilots in droves to replenish their ranks after thousands of early retirements or voluntary departures during the pandemic. However, that has left regionals scrambling with an already limited supply of new pilots.
In a recent report, Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth described pilot staffing as an “industry-wide cost risk or growth bottleneck” for 2022. The situation is “more acute” at regional airlines that act as a pipeline to jobs at major airlines, she said. Regionals employed 17,167 pilots at the end of 2020, whereas the eight largest U.S. airlines plan to hire roughly 8,000 new pilots — up from roughly 5,000 annually before the pandemic — in 2022.
“I’m a little less optimistic that the situation will reverse itself unless we do something to address the shortage of pilots,” Kirby said at the Senate hearing.
Suspending routes appears to United’s immediate response to the shortage. While no additional cities will lose service from the carrier entirely, its Dulles hub — an airport specifically named by Kirby as in need of major upgrades at the Senate hearing — appears to be bearing the brunt of the latest round of reductions.
“We are truly disappointed that the route will be suspended due to the shortage of regional pilots,” said Tom Tyra, a spokesperson for the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. United will continue to serve the airport from Chicago, Denver, Houston, and Newark.
All of the suspended routes were operated by Air Wisconsin, an exclusive Bombardier CRJ200 operator, according to Cirium schedules. The airline saw its workforce cut by a quarter to 1,350 at the end of October compared with the end of 2019, U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data shows.
Air Wisconsin CEO Robert Binns did not respond to an inquiry on the regional airline’s pilot staffing situation.
Based on current schedules — the cuts have yet to be loaded for sale — the 12 destinations represent nearly 11 percent of United’s departures from Dulles in March, Cirium data show. However, the overall schedule reductions may be greater as other cities could lose frequencies as a result of the reduction in overall connectivity.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles, declined to comment, and deferred to United.
Updated with comment from United, and added two cities losing service to Washington Dulles.