Shortage of pilots in the US leads airlines to abandon regional routes

New York (CNN Business) — Flying in and out of the Dubuque, Iowa, airport on the banks of the Mississippi River is no big deal for the county’s 100,000 residents. The airport is small and easy to get around. Parking is free. All that will end next September.

American Airlines, the only carrier that offered scheduled service to Dubuque, will eliminate its routes due to a lack of pilots needed to staff regional jets serving the airport. The airline has also cut its services in Islip, New York, on eastern Long Island; in Ithaca, New York, home to Cornell University, and in Toledo, Ohio, for the same reason. The airline described the measures as a “difficult decision”.

For most residents and businesses using the Dubuque airport, the main alternative will be a three-hour drive to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, which is not easy to get around, nor does it have cheap valet parking. . Much of the journey is not even on interstate highways.

In addition to making travel difficult, the decision is a serious blow to the business prospects of the city and its surroundings.

“It’s certainly disappointing. Obviously air service is important to the business community,” said Molly Grove, CEO of the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce. “They depend on it to bring in talent, or to fly talent to other companies. The time saved by not having to drive somewhere can’t be matched.”

But Dubuque and the other affected airports are not alone. It is a problem that affects more and more cities, and is likely to be a growing concern in the coming years, according to experts. United and Delta, the other two big carriers that use a connection network that relies on regional jets, are also cutting service to some of the smaller airports.

Despite efforts by airlines to hire more pilots, the shortage in the US is expected to continue to worsen. And that will be especially true for the regional airlines that serve these smaller cities on behalf of the big carriers. It is mostly those pilots who are being hired to fly the biggest planes.

Furthermore, this problem is not simply the result of disruptions to the US airline industry caused by the pandemic and the spate of early retirements that have occurred as a result.

“Communities have been losing air service for most of the last decade,” said Faye Malarkey Black, CEO of the Regional Airlines Association (RAA). “You don’t have to lose all service to lose connectivity to the system. When a lot of frequency is lost, businesses won’t want to settle in one place.”

RAA statistics show that two dozen markets served by regional airports have lost half their services in the last three years, and that’s not including the rounds of cuts planned for this year. Another 42 markets have lost between a third and a half of service in that period.

Malarkey Black says the pilot shortage has left airlines with no choice but to cut back on service. According to figures from aviation analytics company Cirium, about 10% of full-size Boeing and Airbus planes in US airline fleets are still not flying, even though travel demand has recovered. of pandemic levels. And more than 500 regional jets, or nearly a quarter of US regional jets from major manufacturers Bombardier and Embraer, remain grounded.

“We don’t have all the pilots to operate all these planes,” he said. “Fewer pilots are entering the profession than leaving it. It’s a great job. The problem is that there are huge barriers to entry and [está] limited to those rich enough to pay for training.

Although Malarkey Black said he thinks changes can be made to loan opportunities and other resources to attract more drivers to the field, other experts say they don’t think the trend will reverse.

“Regional jets exist for a reason. They’re not going away. But the economics of aviation are changing,” said Jim Corridore, director of research firm Similarweb. “There are fuel costs, wage pressures. The economics of flying are changing. Some cities are not going to be profitable.”

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