The pilot situation in the U.S. is getting worse before it gets better. United Airlines will end 17 routes, and exit one city, in its latest round of staffing-related schedule reductions.
The Chicago-based carrier will exit Alexandria, La., on June 2 when it ends flights from its Houston Bush Intercontinental hub, Cirium schedule data show. The city joins at least eight other smaller communities that United has exited citing a pilot shortage at its regional affiliates.
In addition, United will end 16 routes from its Denver, Chicago O’Hare, Houston, Newark, and Washington Dulles hubs in May and June. Chicago and Washington will see the most cuts with the former losing flights to Bismarck, N.D., Charlottesville, Va., Jackson, Miss., Pasco, Wash., and Redmond-Bend, Ore.; and the latter to Allentown, Pa., Lexington, Ky., Madison, Wis., Oklahoma City, and Pensacola, Fla., according to Cirium. Some of the routes are operating and will end, while others were due to begin in June and have now been pulled from schedules entirely. United previously cut 14 routes at Dulles due to the shortage.
A United spokesperson said the cuts were part of its “regular adjustments to our schedule in response to market demand and staffing resources.”
But pilot staffing is the specter hanging over the U.S. airline recovery. Numerous industry leaders, from United CEO Scott Kirby to Regional Airlines Association (RAA) President Faye Malarkey Black, have raised alarm bells about a shortage facing the industry as it comes out of the Covid-19 crisis. Elevated numbers of pilot retirements early in the pandemic followed by similarly elevated hiring targets coming out of it, coupled with depressed numbers of new pilots entering the system, are driving the shortage. And it is not a new problem: Those same industry leaders have warned of a looming shortage for almost a decade.
“The pilot problem is real and growing,” said one senior executive at a major airline who was not allowed to speak on the record. “It’s bad.”
Small cities are feeling the brunt of the situation. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also suspended regional routes — though not as many as United — this spring and summer in response to the shortage. Their latest reductions include American ending flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Long Beach that was due to resume in August, and Delta pulling flights between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dayton that were due to resume in May, Cirium data show.
The cuts come just months after air service protections under the federal coronavirus relief package, or CARES Act, expired on September 30, 2021. Prior to that, airlines were barred from dropping most U.S. airports from their maps unless they were in a metropolitan area served by multiple airports — like New York with JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, Stewart, and White Plains — or the airline received a waiver from the Department of Transportation.
Alaska Airlines has taken a different approach to pilot staffing at its affiliates, Horizon Air and SkyWest Airlines. In an annual financial filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission in February, the Seattle-based carrier disclosed that it was shifting deliveries of new Embraer E175 jets to SkyWest from Horizon “due to a shortage of pilots” at the latter. Alaska still plans to add 13 E175s to its feeder fleet in 2022.
“We are seeing high attrition,” said Horizon pilot Ben Frazier who is also executive council chairman of the airline’s chapter at the Teamsters. The carrier lost roughly 150 pilots during the year ending in mid-February, he added. Horizon employed 816 pilots at the end of December.
Low pay at regional carriers, and high pilot training costs have long been seen as constraints on the industry. Airline leaders have acknowledged these issues and are working to address them. For example, pilots at United subsidiary and affiliate CommutAir ratified a new contract with significant pay increases — 25 percent for captains and 31 percent for first officers — on February 28. And other airlines offer lucrative incentives for new hires who stay with an airline; worth up to $182,500 at American-subsidiary Envoy.
And United, in response to high cost of pilot training, opened its own flight school — United Aviate Academy — in January. United and J.P. Morgan will cover the cost of enrollees’ private pilot’s licenses but they are still on the hook for roughly $71,250 in expenses related to additional necessary pilot ratings.
Despite these moves, few expect the pilot shortage to be alleviated this year. Mesa Airlines and SkyWest — the only publicly traded U.S. regional airlines — have pulled back their flying forecasts for 2022 citing pilots. And all of the major carriers have reduced capacity guidance for the summer when, by most estimates, domestic demand will be strong.