United Express airlines are experiencing such a severe pilot shortage that roughly 100 regional jets have had to be parked, according to United CEO Scott Kirby, who testified before the Senate on Wednesday.
“There has been a looming pilot shortage for the last decade in the United States, and going through COVID it became an actual pilot shortage,” Kirby said in response to a question from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
“So all of us, particularly our regional partners, simply don’t have enough airplanes to fly. We have almost 100 airplanes effectively grounded right now — regional aircraft — because there’s not enough pilots to fly them, which means we can’t at the moment fly to all the small communities that we would like to. It’s really about not having enough pilots.”
Kirby’s remarks on Wednesday marked the first time he has publicly said that United’s regional partners had had to park that many planes. Kirby warned of staffing-related difficulties to 50-seat regional aircraft operations at a Skift Forum last month.
“We don’t have enough pilots to fly all the airplanes,” he said. “So the 50-seaters are at the bottom of that pile, and markets that rely on 50-seaters are the ones that are going to lose service.”
Earlier this fall, United announced that regional service to 11 locations would be discontinued. The city of Twin Falls, Idaho (TWF), has already lost service, with the remaining cutbacks following in the next weeks.
The Canadair Regional Jet 200 and 550, as well as the Embraer 145, are the three types of 50-seat aircraft used by United Express.
Kirby advocated shifting Essential Air Service cash to pilot training as a longer-term strategy to help shore up the supply of pilots in response to a question from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Flight school is costly, with prospective pilots spending upwards of $100,000 before they’re ready to fly for the airlines.
“As much as we like getting EAS money when we fly to markets, I’d much rather take those funds and put them into the infrastructure to create training for pilots, and to build a robust pipeline that makes it easy for people with an aptitude and a desire to be a commercial airline pilot to get the training, to get the skills that they need,” he said.
EAS is a federal government-funded subsidy to airlines that helps them keep service to select small communities where it would be economically unsustainable otherwise.
According to the US Department of Transportation, which administers the program, the budget for EAS in fiscal year 2019 was $325 million.