The pilot situation in the United States is deteriorating before improving. In its latest round of staffing-related schedule reductions, United Airlines will eliminate 17 routes and leave one city.
According to Cirium scheduling data, the Chicago-based carrier will stop flights from its Houston Bush Intercontinental hub on June 2. United has left at least eight smaller areas, citing a pilot shortage at its regional affiliates as the reason.
In addition, in May and June, United would discontinue 16 routes from its Denver, Chicago O’Hare, Houston, Newark, and Washington Dulles hubs.
According to Cirium, the most flights will be cut from Chicago and Washington, with the former losing flights to Bismarck, N.D., Charlottesville, Va., Jackson, Miss., Pasco, Wash., and Redmond-Bend, Ore., and the latter losing flights to Allentown, Pa., Lexington, Ky., Madison, Wis., Oklahoma City, and Pensacola, Fla.
Some of the routes are still running and will be discontinued, while others were supposed to start in June but have already been removed from the calendar entirely. Due to the scarcity, United had earlier cut 14 services at Dulles.
The cuts, according to a United representative, are part of the company’s “normal schedule adjustments in response to market demand and workforce resources.”
However, the threat of pilot shortages hangs over the airline revival in the United States. Several industry officials, including United CEO Scott Kirby and RAA President Faye Malarkey Black, have highlighted concerns about a supply deficit while the industry recovers from the Covid-19 disaster.
The shortfall is being driven by a high number of pilot retirements early in the epidemic, followed by similarly high hiring targets in the aftermath, as well as a low number of new pilots entering the system. It’s also not a new issue: industry experts have been warning about a potential scarcity for nearly 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.”
The scenario is wreaking havoc on little towns. In response to the scarcity, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also halted regional routes — albeit not as many as United — during spring and summer.
According to Cirium data, American has canceled flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Long Beach that were scheduled to restart in August, while Delta has canceled flights between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dayton were scheduled to resume in May.
The cuts came just months after the federal coronavirus relief program, or CARES Act, which provided air service protections, ended on September 30, 2021.
Prior to that, airlines were only allowed to remove most U.S. airports from their maps if they were located in a metropolitan area with multiple airports — such as New York, which has JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, Stewart, and White Plains — or if they received a waiver from the Department of Transportation.
Horizon Air and SkyWest Airlines, Alaska Airlines’ affiliates, have taken a distinct approach to pilot staffing.
The Seattle-based carrier reported in a February annual financial filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was transferring deliveries of new Embraer E175 jets from Horizon to SkyWest “due to a pilot shortage” at the latter. In 2022, Alaska still intends to add 13 E175s to its feeder fleet.
“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 on regional carriers and expensive pilot training costs have long been viewed as industry bottlenecks.
Airline executives are aware of the problems and are striving to resolve them. Pilots at United subsidiary and affiliate CommutAir, for example, accepted a new contract on February 28 that included hefty pay increases – 25% for captains and 31% for first officers. Other airlines, such as American-subsidiary Envoy, offer significant incentives for new recruits who stay with the company.
In January, United created its own flying school, United Aviate Academy, in response to the exorbitant cost of pilot training. United and J.P. Morgan will cover the cost of registrants’ private pilot’s licenses, but they will be responsible for approximately $71,250 in additional pilot ratings.
Despite these efforts, few people believe the pilot shortage will be resolved this year. Mesa Airlines and SkyWest, the only publicly traded regional airlines in the United States, have lowered their flight predictions for 2022, citing pilots as a reason.
In addition, all of the major carriers have decreased capacity forecasts for the summer, when domestic demand is expected to be robust.