Pilot shortage shaking up summer travel itineraries

U.S.

(NewsNation) — Packed planes, fewer flights available and now a nationwide pilot shortage are taking a toll on U.S. airlines’ daily flight schedules.

American Airlines announced plans to ground about 100 regional jets due to the pilot shortage, snowballing supply and demand issues that have already been plaguing the airline industry.

As airlines are experiencing nearly pre-pandemic levels of demand for air travel, many are still struggling to restaff following widespread layoffs during the pandemic.

Commercial airline pilot Capt. Laura Einsetler discussed what’s ahead for summer travelers during an appearance on “Morning in America”.

“We just don’t have all of the workers that we need to meet those demands,” Einsetler said. “So now it’s a matter of resource allocation to make sure that we can get everyone to where they need to be this summer.”

TSA checkpoint numbers show demand for travel is way up since the pandemic, but down 9% from June of 2019.

Airlines say that they don’t have enough pilots to expand their schedules.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 14,000 pilot openings are expected each year over the next decade. That will be 140,000 by 2032.

At the height of the pandemic, airlines gave early retirements to pilots who never returned to the workforce, despite receiving $54 billion in federal aid to keep workers on the payroll, which executives say wasn’t enough to cover all of their employees’ salaries. 

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” United CEO Scott Kirby told investors in the spring. 

“We did have a lot of people retire early, because we just didn’t know how long this pandemic effect was going to last,” Einsetler said. “And unfortunately, of course, the people that were laid off, some of them changed industries to different things that are a little bit more stable, less volatile.”

Hundred of American Airlines pilots recently picketed in front of the New York Stock Exchange and at the Miami International Airport to bring to attention to issues like unreliable scheduling, higher pay and their overall dissatisfaction. Southwest Airlines pilots also demonstrated in Dallas.

Pilots say fatigue is on the rise and is putting safety at risk.

Two airline pilots reportedly fell asleep on a flight from New York City to Rome last month with as many as 250 passengers on board.

Travel blogger Johnny Jet says airlines are pushing for several changes, including raising the pilot retirement age and lowering the training barrier to entry in an attempt to add pilots to their rosters.

“Simply they’re going to the mainline carriers which are paying a lot more money, they have better benefits, they’re flying to better destination,” she said. “So that’s the real reason.”

Some airlines are trying to drop requirements, cutting back on training hours just to try to get pilots to fly sooner.

“That’s not the solution,” Einsetler said. “The reason why we have these rules and standards and criteria in place is because you want to have an alert, well-rested, highly experienced, well-trained pilot at your controls when you’re flying.”

“So lowering any type of standards is definitely not the solution there,” she continued. “And if we raise the retirement age, we definitely want to be looking at more stringent medical guidelines.”

United Airlines is planning to invest $100 million to expand its training center in Denver as part of a broader push to enlarge its workforce and hire more pilots and airline staff.

“So right now we just really need to encourage the next generation to come up through the ranks,” Einsetler said. “We need to provide better stability for the industry. And better just initial overall pay, so that people are drawn to our industry.”

The Hill and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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