United CEO: 100 Planes Are Parked Amid Regional Pilot Shortage

Major US airline executives faced questioning from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. One of the topics that came up were recent cuts to some regional routes, including some market exits. Several others offered their input. However, it was United’s CEO, Scott Kirby, who had the most to say. According to his testimony, nearly 100 regional aircraft are parked at United due to the ongoing pilot shortage.

Regional pilot shortages are causing United to park nearly 100 small planes. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

United has regional jets parked over pilot shortage

Asked about service to smaller, regional destinations, Mr. Kirby stated the following:

“We have almost 100 airplanes effectively grounded right now – regional aircraft, because there’s not enough pilots to fly them, which means we just can’t, at the moment, fly to all the small communities that we would like to.”

United Airlines made headlines just a few months ago when it pulled service to a handful of destinations, mainly those receiving regional services, due to these pilot shortages. With so much appetite from large mainline carriers for pilots and continued growth in the low-cost sphere, there are not enough pilots to meet demand. In addition, training pilots is no easy task, and the cost to enter the industry has been highlighted as a barrier to training pilots.

United’s CEO emphasized the different ways United was looking at alleviating the problem. One of them is the United Aviate Academy, which only recently saw its first class of students start their education on the way to becoming a pilot. United has also made a considerable push at various levels to get people to become pilots, including sending a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to highlight the Aviate program and the various pathways for entering United as a pilot.

Other airlines chimed in

CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, was also asked to weigh in on the issue of pilot shortages. He stated:

“Service to small communities is incredibly important to American Airlines. We serve some 230 cities in the United States. Obviously, a number of those are smaller communities…and we would like to serve more, frankly, over time.”

He added the following:

“It is going to be an issue for our ability to serve if we can’t recruit enough pilots into the regional airlines. I believe we can get that solved. That is certainly an issue that we’re concerned about going forward. It hasn’t affected American yet.”

American Airlines highlights that part of its sizable brand and presence is focused on connecting the small- and medium-sized cities to the rest of the world. American has traditionally used regional jets to expand its domestic network to new cities.

Executive Vice President and Chief of Operations at Delta Air Lines, John Laughter, also discussed the airline’s regional network in the context of its cuts in Grand Junction, Colorado:

“The one area that we are seeing a labor shortage, and I think it’s short lived, is in our regional pilots. As the major airlines are hiring pilots and because of the fact that in 2020 there was a gap where there was much lower flying, which sort of disrupts the training pipeline and the captain upgrade in the regional worldd. That’s sort of impacting us at this point. As we look out, we aren’t able to serve every place that we would like to…We see a recovery happening in 2022.”

Regional pilots are a vital part of the industry

While flying a CRJ or an Embraer regional jet might not be the flashiest job in the aviation world, it is one of the most important for airlines. Regional jets are part of an extensive feed network that airlines build up as a method of supporting its hubs and moving vital cargo around the country and the world.

Moreover, regional pilots are a pipeline to mainline service. Outside of hiring from the military, private, or cargo world, US airlines often recruit from the regional carriers. However, the demand up from regionals to mainline carriers is outpacing the number of pilots that regional airlines are hiring. This is due to various issues, including a lack of more widespread funding to help send people to training.

Given the ongoing demand for pilots for mainline operations, the pilot shortage is likely to last without further action. Photo: Getty Images

If the shortage of regional pilots continues, as it likely will, it could lead to a continued rethinking of route networks that spells trouble for smaller US cities. In many destinations, regional jets are the only aircraft that make economic sense.

From the hearing, it appeared there was some appetite for some assistance from the US government, likely financial, to help support pilot training initiatives to keep many of these regional destinations served. This could help relieve some of the pressure on airlines themselves to solve the issue, though it will not be the last time the industry will need to contend with pilot shortages.

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