Pilot shortage strikes again: Horizon/Alaska Airlines cuts coming

First came a spate of cancelled flights across the network. Then came deferral of new aircraft deliveries, potentially resulting in a shift of aircraft orders from one regional operator to another. Initially it appeared only Colorado Springs would lose its Alaska Airlines-branded flights, operated by Horizon Airlines, as a pilot shortage continues to limit operations. Now the cuts appear much more significant. Dallas, Medford, Pasco, Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha, and Great Falls all will see cuts starting in Early November 2017.

Routes Cut

  • Seattle – Colorado Springs
  • Portland – Kansas City
  • Portland – St. Louis
  • Los Angeles – Medford

Routes Reduced

  • Portland – Dallas
  • Portland – Omaha
  • Portland – Pasco
  • Seattle – Great Falls

The affected routes operate with Embraer ERJ-175 aircraft. That’s the same type Alaska Air Group (the parent company) is focused on using for much of the recent expansion announced by the airline. So, while the pilot shortage issue is very real, I do wonder how much the cuts are tied specifically to that versus the value other routes present to the airline. Then again, many of the new routes are slated to operate on SkyWest-operated E75s, not the Horizon-operated version of the type. Also of note, the Colorado Springs market is not one that Delta Air Lines has yet chosen to challenge Alaska Airlines on with its hub expansion in Seattle.

Previous Alaska Air Group optimism about quickly resolving the pilot issues appears to have been overzealous. The company now expects that issues will last until at least mid-2018. That’s bad news for the airline and for passengers. It is also unclear just how likely things are to get better by then.

Pilot Shortage Creep Continues

US airlines have been struggling with pilot recruitment for several years now. The training is expensive and entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. Add in a shift to require 1,500 hours of flying before a pilot can be certified to operate a commercial aircraft and things get really rough. The 1,500 hour rule came about after the Colgan Air/Continental Airlines crash in 2009 that killed 50 passengers near Buffalo, NY. The pilots responded incorrectly to stall indications, contributing to the crash. As the NTSB reported:

The captain’s inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover.

At no point in the investigation did the idea arise that the pilots were under-trained for the flight they were operating. And both had well more than the 1,500 hours now set as a minimum. It remains unclear how that number came about, but in the wake of the crash it was adopted and the repercussions continue to be felt. Things are very much going to get worse before they get better.

First to feel the pinch are smaller regional/prop operators. Great Lakes aviation started blocking seats to make its aircraft “smaller” per FAA rules and operate under different regulations that give more flexibility. PenAir is also struggling, dropping two hubs and filing for bankruptcy protection as it struggles to staff its flights. And the announcement of that bankruptcy had the add-on effect of more pilots leaving, further limiting the company’s ability to operate.

JetBlue is taking a slightly different angle to address the pilot shortage problem. The airline offers some potential pilots a training program that includes access to jobs with the airline once they hit the 1,500 hour number. The program also includes the opportunity to work towards the 1,500 as instructors at a flight training academy in Arizona. Presumably the higher pay scale of getting straight to a mainline carrier is helpful for those students, as is the paid work along the way. But the overall expense remains high to get to that point. Also, only 19 potential pilots are in the first “class” working through the program. It is a solid idea but needs to scale much larger to have the impact the industry needs.

Read More: A350 deferrals continue as airlines reconsider options

Fewer pilots are transitioning from military to commercial service. More planes are flying all over the globe and need people up front to fill those seats. And the growth in flights shows only minimal signs of slowing, but that’s a slower growth pace, not a shrinking of the industry. All of which is to say that the pilot shortage is very real and mitigation efforts are not really working so far.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I don’t get why the US brought in the rule about minimum hours, 2,000h is it? after the Colgan crash in Buffalo, when the pilots weren’t low time. Ryanair hire guys with 180h total time and have an incredible safety record

    1. It is 1,500 hours and, yes, it is stupid. Particularly in that it was implemented in response to an event wholly unrelated.

      Usually such actions are driven by someone who expects to make money on the move. In this case I cannot figure out who that is.

  2. LAX-MFR has actually been a Q400 and that route will be missed. American just started a once daily LAX-MFR this summer. Hopefully they will up that to twice a day to make up for the cut Alaska Horizon flight.

  3. I don’t mind the idea that the guys in charge of my life for the direction of the flight should be very experienced and qualified. But clearly the current system does not provide enough of a reward for people to take on the high costs to prepare themselves for jobs under these rules. My question is: what will it take to make it worth prospective pilots’ whiles to begin a career in commercial aviation, and what effect will that have on the fares that we as passengers pay?

    Last time I sat down and crunched the numbers, paying regional pilots mainline payscales would only add something like $9 per passenger for a typical regional flight. No idea if that’s even remotely ballpark, though

    1. Does the 1,500 hour rule make the pilots more qualified than under the old rules? I don’t believe it changes the safety quotient at all. And one reason I’m comfortable saying that is because many other countries are just as safe in commercial air transport without it.

      Would giving the pilots a raise help? Absolutely. But it is still hard to work off $100k+ in training debt plus deal with the relatively crappy work conditions of the first few years in the job.

      I’m not sure what the answer is. And reality is there are probably many answers that must all work together. But I do know that what we’re doing now is not getting us any closer to a viable solution. We’re in big trouble.

    2. The mainline pilots who post in the UA Pilot Q&A thread, as well as friends of mine who work as ATC controllers, seem to take the position that the foreign carriers are indeed less safe due to their lack of experience (and, in some cases, operational cultures). I don’t know whether they are correct, but they know a heck of a lot more than I do about that topic, so I’ve defaulted to trusting their take.

      Surely the market will do something, though. Supply is being cut. If demand outstrips supply, the market will react and fill the demand. The question is, how will that happen, and is there anything the carriers (or, yes, the regulators) can do to make that process smoother?

    3. Those same pilots are certainly not disinterested parties in that discussion. Especially when it comes to shitting on newer foreign carriers trying to operate in US markets. And, again, the 1500 rule came from the Colgan crash where both were well over that number. It doesn’t add up.

      I agree the market is going to have to correct for this eventually. I do not see it being a smooth correction.

  4. I present the following information for the purposes of educating my fellow aviation enthusiasts and for bloggers that don’t do their technical homework. The 1500 hr. rule is not arbitrary. It has been around for 40+ years in the form of pilot aircraft “TYPE” certification requirements and for requirements of the airman “ATP” (see FAR PART 61: Airman Certification and Training), Airline Transport Pilot certification. These are two completely different requirements. It gets a bit confusing for the non-airman but you do not have to be an airline pilot to hold an ATP. You can fly only a Cessna 172 and earn an ATP. Conversely, you could be an airline pilot, flying an aircraft that doesn’t require a type rating, without a TYPE certification, simply a “commercial” pilot certificate. What the FAA did was (IMHO) cut off the loophole that allowed airlines that fly “passengers for hire” (a key liability point) on aircraft that did not require a TYPE rating, to hire pilots with less than the minimum hours required for an ATP airman certification. It also cut off the common practice of hiring one rated “captain” with a few thousand hours for an aircraft that required a TYPE rating and a copilot with 300 hours. That was very common practice on shoestring budgets. Is this clear as mud? What non pilots have to understand is that the number of hours you have does not define the quality of pilot skills. There is a huge difference between “qualified” and “competent”. Would this rule have saved the 50 souls on the Colgan flight? Arguably, maybe. The policy folks took the investigation of an accident that probably (what do I know, I wasn’t there) shouldn’t have happened and came up with a solution that should work…maybe.

  5. Thanks for sharing this news, and for the other commenters such as aireye onu and others for sharing their knowledge. Regards, Alastair Majury

  6. It is unfortunate ,but this airline career is a dying breed.There is not a decent pay rate to make this a good career anymore.

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