Alaska Airlines has recalled all of its pilots who had taken long-term leave during the epidemic, and this week it began training its first class of freshly hired pilots since the slump began.
“We are growing our airline back from the deep cuts we made in 2020,” Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in a memo sent to pilots Wednesday.
In an interview on Friday, he stated that the airline hopes to hire roughly 170 additional pilots by the end of the year.
In his memo, Ladner outlined the aggressive timeline for adding Boeing 737 MAXs to Alaska’s fleet over the next six years. To support Alaska’s current single MAX simulator, he said two more MAX simulators will be ready for training next year to scale up pilot training on those aircraft.
Alaska has just received its seventh Boeing MAX and plans to accept five more by the end of the year and 63 more over the next two years. It has 93 MAXs on order, with options to purchase 52 more, which it hopes to add by 2026.
With these acquisitions, Alaska’s fleet will surpass its pre-pandemic level of 237 planes by next year.
Alaska will have a fleet of 251 jets by the end of 2023, and if all MAX purchase options are exercised, it would have more than 300 planes by the end of 2025.
Back from long leave
Last year, almost 900 Alaska pilots took prolonged leave to avoid furloughs. Management agreed with the pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association, to allow pilots to sign up for leave ranging from three months to more than two years, with compensation fixed at roughly 60% of normal rates and full benefits.
This agreement permitted management to recall pilots with 45 days’ notice in order to give flexibility if air travel numbers increased. That has now occurred on domestic lines in the United States.
According to International Aviation Transport Association data, domestic air traffic in the United States recovered to just over 92 percent of its level in the same month last year in July. Airlines are hopeful that a drop in August traffic caused by the delta coronavirus type will be just transitory.
Alaska has already recalled all pilots who were on leave for an extended period of time, and they “will be back within the next several weeks,” according to Ladner’s memo.
After all of the captains were recalled by the end of the summer, the pilots returning now include some of the airline’s most senior first officers. Some haven’t flown in almost a year, and all must go through simulator training before resuming passenger service.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the first new-hire class in almost a year and a half began training. This was a class of ten pilots who will fly Alaska Airlines’ Airbus planes. Ladner anticipates that a fresh class of new hires will begin every week until the end of the year.
To keep up with the tremendous increase in training activity, Ladner informed the pilots that the airline had purchased two new 737 MAX full-motion simulators, which will be installed at Boeing’s Longacre’s training center.
According to Capt. Jeff Severns, Alaska’s managing director of flight operations training, it typically takes roughly 18 months from the start of the building of a flight simulator to its readiness for training.
These sophisticated machines must be fine-tuned to combine Boeing’s data software and cockpit configuration hardware, which must be modified to duplicate a specific jet in the Alaska fleet with Alaska-specific equipment.
He stated that Alaska was able to purchase two simulators in an advanced-build stage from Montreal-based simulator producer CAE, and that they will be available for training in roughly a year.
Furthermore, Alaska has bought two simpler 737 MAX Flight Training Devices, which give a cockpit-like arrangement in which a pilot sits in front of a pilot display and controls without complete motion. According to Severns, these will be available for training in the second quarter of 2022.
In addition, because Alaska pilots also fly older model Boeing 737NGs, the airline has purchased a full-flight 737NG simulator from Southwest Airlines. Alaska is currently modifying the machine at Longacres to imitate the 737-800 used by its pilots, rather than the 737-700 used by Southwest.
That simulator should be ready by December.
Alaska has rented Airbus and Boeing simulators in Dallas and Phoenix to meet pilot training demands until the new simulators are available.
Alaska management and the pilots’ union are now at odds over a pilot contract. Management filed for mediation with the National Mediation Board at the end of last month, which may be a lengthy process.
Alaska will disclose third-quarter profits on Oct. 21 and will discuss its growth objectives at that time.