American Airlines will temporarily suspend at least seven regional routes this spring amid a worsening shortage of pilots facing U.S. regional carriers.
“We’re making proactive adjustments to our schedule to mitigate any future travel disruptions related to near-term pilot staffing challenges at our regional carriers,” an American spokesperson said of the suspensions. Envoy, Mesa Airlines, and SkyWest Airlines operate the seven suspended routes, Cirium schedules show.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier will suspend flights between Chicago O’Hare and Evansville, Ind., Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., Huntsville, Ala., and Montreal; Dallas-Fort Worth and Long Beach; and Los Angeles and both Northwest Arkansas and Reno from March 3 into April, according to Cirium schedules. No destination will lose American service entirely though some, for example Long Beach, will see flights limited to just one of the airline’s hubs.
American is the latest to pare schedules amid pilot staffing challenges at regional airlines. Delta Air Lines has cut its regional flying by up to a quarter from previous plans through the first half. United Airlines has parked 100 small jets and cut regional routes and destinations in response. Wall Street analysts and industry experts say the shortage could limit the Big 3’s capacity recovery in 2022.
The shortage comes at a critical time for airlines. Travel is expected to continue to ramp up in 2022, a year that many believe will mark the end of pandemic travel habits and a beginning of the new normal. Business travelers are forecast to finally come back in significant numbers, and international markets that were closed for much of the crisis are expected to begin reopening in meaningful ways with the exception of China.
Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airlines Association (RAA), described the situation in December as “just a pilot shortage.” One that the entire U.S. airline industry, and not only regional carriers, faces. She highlighted the high cost of pilot training as a significant barrier to increasingly the supply of pilots.
The issue is supply and demand. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration was forecast to issue more than 4,300 new airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates — the license for commercial airline pilots — in 2021, according to RAA data. But at the same time, the eight largest U.S. carriers plan to hire as many as 8,000 new pilots in 2022, according to a December analysis by Raymond James. The difference — some roughly 3,700 cockpit crew members — represents the shortage.
Regional airlines are feeling this shortage most acutely because, as the entry point into the industry for most pilots, they are where major airlines like American or United turn to meet their staffing needs.
And the staffing issues are not expected to ease soon. According to a recent analysis by Oliver Wyman, the U.S. pilot shortage could grow to more than 12,000 pilots in 2023 and over 20,000 pilots by the end of the decade.
U.S. airlines are taking steps to increase pilot supply and alleviate the shortage. American is offering generous signing bonuses and incentives that could total more than $180,000 over multiple years aimed at attracting new crew members, and helping defray some of the high training costs. Other airlines have even launched their own flight schools. But all of these efforts take time to translate into more pilots — a process that by various measures can take up to five years.
In the meantime, U.S. capacity growth is likely to be “conservative,” as Campbell-Hill Aviation Group’s President and CEO Kevin Healy put it earlier in January, for the foreseeable future.