U.S. Dispute over Pilot Shortages, Flight Disruptions Ratchets Up

 - September 1, 2022, 8:52 AM
Passengers will crowd airport terminals over the Labor Day weekend, marking the unofficial end of summer in the U.S. (Photo: Pixabay)

The Air Line Pilots Association’s launch of a nationwide informational picketing campaign on September 1 raises the temperature in a heated dispute over the existence of a pilot shortage in the U.S. and the source of disruptions in operations among airlines. While airlines blame crew shortages and, more recently, government bungling leading to air traffic control interruptions, for example, ALPA places the responsibility squarely on airlines for their mismanagement of staffing needs following what the union characterizes as a predictable result of the recovery of travel demand amid the waning of the Covid pandemic.

Meanwhile, ALPA and the Regional Airline Association (RAA) remain at odds over what the union calls false claims by the industry group of the very existence of a pilot shortage. The RAA has long warned that the 2010 Congressional action that required airline first officers to have collected at least 1,500 flight hours, with limited exceptions, would result in too few available pilots and a loss of air service to small and medium-sized communities. ALPA insists that monetary concerns have motivated calls by the RAA to relax the rules and some regional airlines to seek exemptions.

ALPA has issued multiple statements citing statistics showing a surplus of available pilots, most recently a report from the FAA indicating that the U.S. has produced 8,823 newly ATP-certified pilots in the last 12 months. The union also released an analysis that showed that its seven largest U.S. passenger carriers employ more pilots and conduct less flying than they did before the pandemic.

The RAA counters that the statistics merely show a clearance of a backlog of certificates accrued during the pandemic, and that one should expect a higher-than-usual issuance of licenses after the dramatic downturn in 2020 and 2021. In fact, the industry group argues that statistics show only a 4.9 percent increase in the monthly rate of certificate awards this year compared to the rate in 2016. The RAA also cited a decrease in required medical clearances, despite the 845 new commercial pilot licenses issued in the month of July.

“This is an example of why new ATP AMEL [air transport pilot-airplane multiengine land] certificates do not necessarily mean growth in the pilot population,” said the RAA in a statement. “This is particularly relevant in June to July. During peak summer demand, nearly all seniority list pilots would be active. Despite hundreds of new ATP AMELs each month…the total count is barely growing month over month.”

Finally, the RAA notes that ALPA’s reference to an increase in pilot employment at its seven largest carriers fails to consider that those pilots mainly came from regional airlines, and that the major airlines have needed to cut service by their regional affiliates to address the resulting pilot shortfall.

In fact, major airlines eventually will need to adjust their somewhat detached attitude toward the problem their regional airlines face in terms of recruiting new pilot hires, whether or not the so-called 1,500-hour rule gets amended, Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst George Ferguson told AIN. “For the longest time, I think they could just say, that's the problem for the regionals. Somebody will figure it out down there,” said Ferguson. “The [major] airlines are probably going to ignore this for as long as they can. But they really can’t anymore, and the proof is that United built its own flight academy…For years they raided the regionals. I personally think that day may be over.”

While Ferguson believes the pilot shortage certainly has contributed to the well-documented summertime flight disruptions, the problem extends to the entire workforce at the airlines and the airports, as well as among government employees such as air traffic controllers, as United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby recently told CNN. With two jobs open for every job seeker in the U.S., people who would accept relatively meager pay for working long hours on an airport ramp, for example, see better opportunities outside the industry. Even among pilot ranks, the phenomenon has seen compensation more than double recently at Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group.

Although Ferguson takes a balanced view of the situation and painted the airlines as victims of circumstance to a degree, he doesn’t completely absolve them from blame.

“I do think at the beginning of the summer the airlines were trying to fly a schedule that was probably a bit aggressive,” he said. “In 1Q, the airlines didn’t have a lot of flying going on because of Omicron and they sold a lot of tickets before the Ukraine invasion, so they were probably at a cheaper price point. They built up a pretty large liability of tickets sold during that time. So I think that when they got into summer and demand really came back, they wanted to fly as much schedule as possible because they wanted to take some of those cheaper tickets and they wanted to put people that were paying much better prices alongside them to bolster results.”

Once the summer schedule began, however, it became clear that the system couldn’t accommodate the surge in traffic, largely due to shortages in staff across the industry, from pilots to ground crew to air traffic control personnel.

In short, the airlines now find themselves in a structural dilemma, suggested Ferguson. “The major problem is business really supported the airlines in those shoulder quarters of Q1 and Q4,” he explained. “So if you're an airline now, it's even worse than it ever was because you make your money in Q2 and Q3.

“So you could see from an airline executive perspective, you wanted to fly everything you could in the summer…But flexing up to sort of be at the peak on your game for two quarters and then flexing down to being 15 percent off your game for two quarters is really hard to do. So maybe they should have been a little more [conservative]. But again, if you're the airlines, you could see there was money to made be made this summer and they wanted to go out and make it, and that's in the best long-term interest of the companies.”