There is a fight underway over the future of commercial air service in America’s heartland. SkyWest Airlines is pushing the U.S. government to approve a new charter subsidiary that it says is necessary to continue flights to many smaller communities but major aviation unions have struck back arguing that the proposal undermines safety.
“We are simply seeking fairness in approving a clearly fit operator,” SkyWest Chief Commercial Officer Wade Steel said Wednesday.
Steel’s comments come nearly a year to the day when the Utah-based regional airline first applied for Department of Transportation certification of the subsidiary, SkyWest Charter, as a response to the captain shortage that has contributed to the loss of air service to many smaller destinations across the U.S. Other existing charter carriers, including Contour Airlines and JSX, already operate under the same authority.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), the two largest aviation unions in the U.S., both oppose the application. In comments made earlier in June, ALPA President Captain Jason Ambrosi claimed that approving SkyWest Charter would “make flying less safe” in the U.S. And AFA President Sara Nelson added that it would start a “race to the bottom” in how airlines serve small cities.
The union’s concerns are rooted in the safety rules put in place following the fatal crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009. Those rules included the requirement that all pilots at Part 121-certified airlines, that is every major carrier from SkyWest to American Airlines, must have at least 1,500 hours of training to obtain an airline transport pilot, or ATP, certificate. The rule includes a few exceptions, including for pilots coming from the military.
SkyWest Charter, which operated its first on-demand charter flights in April, plans to fly under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 135 and 380 certifications that allows the hiring of pilots with as little as 250 hours of experience. The tradeoff is carriers like Contour and JSX cannot operate planes with more than 30 seats, and must do so outside of the traditional capacity purchase contracts that U.S. regionals typically fly under.
Steel said Wednesday that, despite operating under the lesser certification standard, SkyWest Charter would only employ pilots with 1,500 hours. It would also operate with the backing of SkyWest Airlines’ own operating standards, which “far exceed Part 135 requirements.”
The DOT did not respond to a request for comment on SkyWest Charter’s pending application. SkyWest and the unions are facing off in comments to the regulator in the official docket.
At stake is how airlines serve small cities like Elko, Nev., and Sioux City, Iowa, where flights are subsidized either locally or through the DOT’s essential air service program. Flights to many of these communities have already shifted from traditional operators, like Republic Airways and SkyWest, to smaller Part 135 operators, including Contour and Southern Airways Express. The causes of this shift are many but the pilot shortage and rapid rise in operating costs since the pandemic are widely cited.
Since April 2020, 74 small markets across the U.S. have lost air service on American, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines or their affiliates, a recent analysis by Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting found. While few of those communities have lost all flights, the pull down severely limits the ability of travelers to fly from these markets to points around the world.
SkyWest and others tout Part 135-certified charter airlines as a way to avoid some of these air service losses. Earlier in June, JSX said the operating model allowed it to “offer new service options for consumers and communities,” as well as “modest” competition for legacy carriers like American and Delta. And JetBlue Airways, which owns a stake in JSX, on Wednesday filed its own defense with the DOT saying any limits on the scheduled-charter model could “further harm small community air service.”
Not everyone believes charter operators are the answer to the loss of flights in smaller U.S. cities.
“It’s a feel-good air service for the sake of air service thing,” Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy Chief Industry Analyst William Swelbar said when asked if the model was the answer to air service losses in May. Asked about SkyWest Charter, he said the application probably needed a “different political environment” to happen.
This is not the first time labor unions have delayed an airline’s certification. ALPA and others successfully delayed a foreign air carrier permit for now-defunct Norwegian Air International for three years before it was finally approved in December 2016. Unions also contributed to the delay former airline Virgin America faced before its eventual certification in 2007. However, in both cases the airline ultimately won — eventually.
ALPA and SkyWest have a contentious history. The union has unsuccessfully attempted to organize the airline’s pilots, which are represented in-house by the SkyWest Airlines Pilots Association, previously. And, in recent years, ALPA has often singled out statements by SkyWest — and not ones by airlines where it represents pilots — in making its own positions, for example denying the U.S. pilot shortage that is widely acknowledged in the airline industry, including by other unions.
“ALPA is attempting to block [SkyWest Charter] solely to preserve the pilot shortage and its own bargaining power,” Corey Keller, the director of public works for Dodge City, Kan., said Wednesday. He was joined by local leaders across the heartland, including Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa, and Liberal and Salina, Kansas, in support of SkyWest Charter’s application.
Whether true or not, ALPA and other unions have won historic wage increases for pilots across the U.S. sector over the past year. That includes raising pay rates at American regional subsidiaries Envoy, Piedmont Airlines, and PSA Airlines, to levels on par with budget carriers like Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines. SkyWest matched the pay rates at American’s subsidiaries last year. ALPA-represented pilots at Delta ratified a new agreement in March that is now the standard for the major U.S. carriers.
The wage increases, however, have not solved the airline industry’s staffing issues. Pilots are no longer in short supply but captains, which require additional hours of experience, are. And airline leaders do not expect the situation to completely ease for several more years.
Ambrosi said ALPA supports flights to small cities but under the same rules that govern most other air service in the U.S. He did not say how the union would address the captain shortage or high operating costs of such flights.
“The lack of movement on SkyWest Charter’s application feels like the DOT is indifferent or doesn’t care about small communities across the U.S.,” Keller said.
While SkyWest Charter’s application nears the one-year mark with the DOT, Contour’s was approved in 10 months in January 2014, and JSX’s in seven months in May 2016.
Updated with comments from JetBlue, JSX, and additional comments from ALPA President Captain Jason Ambrosi.