SkyWest Airlines wants to end most of its Essential Air Service flying by June 10.
The nation’s largest regional airline said in a filing with the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday that staffing pressures due to pilot shortages were too great for it to continue to operate service to 29 communities. Of the 29 communities, 28 could lose service completely. The St. George, Utah-based airline currently operates 49 EAS routes and is already in the process of ending service to two of them.
EAS is the federal government’s program that subsidizes air service to small communities where service might not otherwise be viable. Contracts are bid on by different carriers and awarded by the DOT, which administers the EAS program.
SkyWest issued a statement saying it will do what it can to accommodate passengers and staff at the affected airports. The airline also left open the door to return to these communities if the situation changed:
“As a result of an ongoing pilot staffing imbalance across the industry, SkyWest expects to discontinue service in several markets beginning this summer. SkyWest has long been a supporter of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program and the critical need it fills in our national transportation infrastructure. We appreciate our partnerships and the support of these communities, and we are committed to delivering a solid, reliable product to each of them through this transition. Our ground staff at these locations will be offered various options, including transfers within the company. Customers booked beyond the service date will be contacted to make alternate arrangements.”
“We are eager to work with officials toward solutions that would enable us to reconnect these communities to the National Air Transportation System in the future, and we are committed to remaining flexible and adjusting our plans if the situation improves more quickly than currently expected.”
SkyWest’s proposal means that about of quarter of the EAS communities in the lower 48 states could soon be without an EAS operator. The DOT will now put these EAS contracts back out to bid. The department also has the right to order SkyWest to continue service until it finds a new operator. It exercised that right for two EAS communities in New York that SkyWest filed to end service to earlier this year — Plattsburgh (PBG) and Ogdensburg (OGS).
A group of progressive lawmakers wants federal officials to scrutinize the proposed merger of Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines over concerns that the combination could prove anti-competitive and hurt customers and workers.
The lawmakers — including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — warn that the merger could drive up ticket prices, worsen customer service and reduce worker leverage. They laid out those misgivings in a letter on Wednesday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, the top antitrust official in the Justice Department.
“For decades, the airline industry has been plagued by increasing consolidation, producing massive airline giants while leaving consumers and workers behind,” the lawmakers wrote. “Because the proposed Spirit-Frontier merger threatens to exacerbate these trends — including by potentially increasing prices during a period of high inflationary pressure — we urge the Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation to closely review this megamerger.”
When Spirit and Frontier announced plans to merge last month, they argued that the combination would make aviation more competitive. The merger would produce the nation’s fifth-largest airline by market share, enabling Spirit and Frontier to better take on the four largest airlines, which control about 80 percent of the domestic market, they said.
“This is a completely different deal than any other airline transaction you’ve looked at in the past, and, for that reason, we think it’s very pro-competition, very pro-consumer,” Spirit’s chief executive, Ted Christie, said in an interview with The New York Times on the day the merger was announced.
But the group of lawmakers disagreed with that characterization, arguing in the letter that “a closer look at how competition actually works in the airline industry quickly reveals the emptiness of these claims.”
Spirit and Frontier are routinely criticized for poor customer satisfaction. In combining, they would dominate certain markets and might have less incentive to address customer concerns, the lawmakers said. Finally, they argued, the merger could promote anti-competitive behavior among the largest airlines.
For employees of Spirit and Frontier, the deal could make it harder to negotiate, the lawmakers said. They also warned that the merger could lead to job cuts, though Spirit and Frontier have said that there would be no layoffs and, in fact, that they plan to hire 10,000 workers by 2026.
The pilots union at Delta Air Lines says the carrier doesn’t have enough buffer in its staffing to manage well through storms or other disruptions, causing pilots to work fatiguing schedules and more overtime.
The airline is counting on pilots to work extra flights on their days off in order to maintain its flight schedules, especially when storms or other disruptions require rescheduling.
Members of the Air Line Pilots Association plan to picket at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport outside the Delta check-in lobby on Thursday to raise public awareness of the staffing issue.
“We’re just concerned that, if the company continues this way, the pilots are just not going to continue with the things the way they are,” said Jason Ambrosi, head of the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta. “At some point, (pilots) may not pick up that overtime anymore and extra flying.”
The union says if the airline had a surplus of pilots, it could avoid excessive flight cancellations when it runs into operational snafus or weather disruptions.
The union wants Delta to refrain from adding flights back to its schedule as rapidly as it has. Ambrosi said he thinks Delta should “add flying back at a more reasonable level, to give our people a break.” The union asked the company to change its pilot scheduling last fall, but said it has not seen the improvements it wanted.
Atlanta-based Delta called the picketing an “informational exercise by some of our off-duty pilots” and said it will not disrupt operations. The pilots union also plans to picket at Los Angeles International Airport on March 25.
The pilots union is in contract negotiations with Delta management. The mediated talks started up again in January following a long pause because of the pandemic.
Delta has said it expects that, this year, its capacity will recover to 90% of its pre-pandemic levels, if demand holds.
Delta pilots worked a record amount of overtime in January, according to the union. “Delta, as a company, handled the pandemic well. However, in the recovery, Delta is adding flying back at a rate that essentially exceeds the number of people we have to handle that flying,” Ambrosi said.
Becoming a pilot for Alaska Airlines and the regional airline it owns just got easier, even for those with no flight experience.
Facing a pilot shortage, Alaska and its regional airline, Horizon Air, are launching the Ascend Pilot Academy in partnership with the Hillsboro Aero Academy in Oregon. The program, announced on Wednesday, focuses on students with little to no flying time, who might not be considering a career in aviation.
“We’re hoping to reach the population that might think flying is not for them,” Carlos Zendejas, Horizon’s vice president of flight operations, said in an interview with TPG. “‘How do you get started?’ seems to be a bit of a barrier.”
Students accepted into Ascend Pilot Academy will also receive a contingent job offer to become first officers at Horizon, which operates the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 and the Embraer 175. Students will earn their ratings from private pilot up to commercial pilot and will receive a $25,000 stipend to pay for the commercial license. After graduating from the program with a commercial license, students can become flight instructors at Hillsboro to earn the hours required to obtain the airline transport pilot certificate needed to fly for Horizon. Once obtaining the required 1,500 flight hours, students are placed in a new-hire class at Horizon.
To get hired at Alaska Airlines, Ascend Pilot Academy graduates who reach Horizon’s flight decks must apply for quarterly openings with the airline’s pathway program and go through an interview process. Zendejas noted that the majority of Horizon pilots who interview for pilot jobs at Alaska are successful.