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Due to a pilot shortage, JetBlue Airways has reduced its summer capacity

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JetBlue Airways is cutting its summer and rest of the year schedules as part of an effort to improve the reliability of its operations in the face of chronic labor shortages.

JetBlue, based in New York Kennedy (JFK), said on April 26 that it will now aim for capacity growth of 0-5 percent for the full year 2022 compared to 2019 levels, down from the previous forecast of 11-15 percent. The airline will cut its summer schedule by 10% from previous estimates, and aircraft utilization is expected to drop by 10-15% from 2019 levels.

JetBlue had to cancel hundreds of flights and delay thousands more due to severe operational meltdowns caused by bad weather and air traffic control delays in Florida, compounded by staffing shortages, particularly among pilots, earlier in April, stranding passengers and crewmembers across its network.

On an earnings call discussing the airline’s $255 million 2022 first-quarter net loss, JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty said the capacity reductions will help build a more “operable and resilient schedule that takes into consideration the reality of the operating environment, including elevated pilot attrition, omicron-related pilot training delays, business partner staffing shortages, and ATC staffing shortages.”

Reduced anticipated utilization will allow the airline to reserve more aircraft for spares, lessening the impact of maintenance-related delays and cancellations.

JetBlue is taking a variety of steps this summer to increase hiring and improve the consistency of its schedule, in addition to reducing capacity. While working through a backlog of pilot training and re-certification flights made worse by the omicron variant interruptions, the airline is ramping up employment efforts, with ambitions to hire 5,000 people in New York City this summer.

Despite its hiring efforts, JetBlue is seeing a high rate of attrition as many of its pilots leave for larger legacy airlines with better pay. CEO Robin Hayes stated that management will have to “plan more conservatively” for future pilot attrition rates, implying that the problem will not go away very soon.

As a result of the prolonged pilot shortage, he noted, industry-wide structural changes, such as a convergence in pilot compensation across large airlines, less system capacity growth, and reduced aircraft utilization, are anticipated to occur in the coming years.

One factor that could potentially help alleviate JetBlue’s pilot attrition woes would be a successful merger with Spirit Airlines, Hayes said.

“We believe the JetBlue and Spirit merger would allow us to supercharge and accelerate that organic plan and bring in a large group of pilots, creating a bigger destination carrier with more growth opportunities, and potentially reducing attrition,” he added.

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