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