SkyWest’s Solution to U.S. Pilot Shortage Has Turned Into a Debate Over Safety

There is a shortage of a critical skilled labor group needed to keep America’s airlines flying: Pilots, particularly captains, are in short supply and that’s resulting in fewer flights to some of the smallest cities across the country.

Major carriers, from American Airlines to Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, all acknowledge the problem. While executives say they do not have problems hiring, their regional affiliates that fly under the American Eagle or Delta Connection brands face challenges sourcing enough captains to operate all of their small jets.

The shortage has contributed to the three major carriers cutting flights in smaller markets even as travel demand has surged back. While the reductions appear to have eased, that did not happen before American, Delta, and United together ended flights to 74 cities between 2020 and this May, data from air service advisors Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting shows.

The situation has prompted some creative thinking. Alaska Airlines, Delta, and United have opened flight schools and offered scholarships to increase the supply of new pilots. American raised pilot pay at its wholly-owned regionals — a move that was matched by the rest of the industry — to levels comparable with budget carriers like Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.

And SkyWest Airlines, the largest regional in the U.S., turned to a peculiarity in federal regulations that allows charter airlines to potentially crew planes with pilots that have far fewer hours than those required at major carriers.

That peculiarity, which allows charter airlines to indirectly operate scheduled flights on planes with up to 30 seats, is now in the crosshairs of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The rules, parts 135 and 380 of the federal code, are complicated but essentially allow an airline operating under them to hire pilots with just 250 hours of flight time. They also include differences in crew rest and retirement age requirements. A U.S. air transport pilot certificate required to fly for an airline like American, Delta, United, or even their regional affiliates that are certified under what is known as “part 121” rules, requires at least 1,500 of flight time.

On Thursday, the FAA said it was considering “revisions” to the rules governing “public charter flights operated under on-demand rules that appear indistinguishable from flights conducted by air carriers.” In other words: It is considering closing the loophole that SkyWest wants to use to address pilot staffing issues and continue flying to some of the smallest cities across the U.S.

“SkyWest Charter believes that the operation of part 380 flights under the current FAA classification is essential for small community air service, today and well into the future,” a SkyWest spokesperson said, referring to the airline’s proposed charter subsidiary.

SkyWest is not alone: Contour Airlines and JSX currently operate under this model. A rule change could put their business models at risk. Small airlines operating under part 135 rules but with nine-seat planes, like Cape Air and Southern Airways Express, would likely not be affected.

The Debate

At issue is what is necessary to keep U.S. airways safe. Unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), both claim that the scheduled charter certification puts fliers at risk. American has also weighed in with concerns.

ALPA President Captain Jason Ambrosi has called the part 135 and 380 certification sought by SkyWest Charter a “lesser safety standard.” He argues that, if the operator is approved, it would “create two standards of safety for U.S. airline passengers.” The union also does not believe there is a pilot shortage in the U.S.

Ambrosi called the FAA’s decision Thursday to review the rules a “significant step in the right direction.”

“This is about whether the model gives an unfair advantage and whether the rules should change,” wrote Brett Snyder on the Cranky Flier blog.

SkyWest Chief Commercial Officer Wade Steel has pushed back saying the new charter subsidiary would meet SkyWest’s own operating standards that “far exceed part 135 requirements.” That includes not hiring pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours.

“JSX has safely operated over 110,000 flights since 2016,” CEO Alex Wilcox said in a June filing with the DOT. “It employs highly experienced pilots, including many who spent their earlier careers flying for major U.S. airlines, including American … [And] JSX uses state-of-the-art safety technologies and programs that exceed the FAA’s requirements for part 135 operators.”

JetBlue Airways in June called the unions and American’s objections “protectionist actions,” and weighed in in support of SkyWest Charter’s application.

Local Support

SkyWest Charter “would allow us to maintain service to the community while long-term solutions are identified,” West Yellowstone, Mont., Town Manager Dan Walker said in a July letter to the DOT in support of the airline’s application. Skywest Charter “represents the best opportunity to maintain the level of service our airport requires and deserves.”

Walker is far from alone. Communities ranging from Elko, Nev., to Johnstown, Pa., and Mason City, Iowa, have all written the DOT in support of SkyWest Charter’s certification. Even destination marketing organization Destination Yellowstone supports approval of the new airline.

These communities fear they may see SkyWest jet flights to major hubs like Denver or Salt Lake City replaced by flights on less popular prop planes, or lose commercial service altogether. Air service to most of these cities is subsidized by the DOT’s essential air service program that guarantees at least a minimal number of flights.

So far, however, SkyWest Charter’s certification remains in limbo despite the support — 14 months after its parent company first applied to the DOT in June 2022.

The DOT approved Contour’s comparable application in 10 months in 2014, and JSX’s in seven months in 2016.

What’s Next

The FAA’s review of its part 135 and 380 rules will likely take years. The agency must collect and review comments, propose a new rule that than must have its own comment period, all before issuing a final rule. Those steps take significant time — usually several months each — to conclude.

Both sides will have the opportunity to make their case in public comments during the review. In the meantime, pressure from both sides is on the DOT to decide on SkyWest Charter’s application.

“Immediate solutions are needed to safely restore air service to smaller communities and protect against further air service erosion,” said Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the trade group the Regional Airline Association. “Since this letter of intent does not change the law, we urge DOT to respond to the application from SkyWest Charter without further delay.”

Black added that they “welcome” the FAA’s review of the rules and relative “safety benefits of individual part 121 requirements.”

Long-time airline industry follower and the chief industry analyst at The Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy William Swelbar weighed in on the situation in a LinkedIn post Friday

SkyWest “seeks a solution to its conundrum. A smart publicly traded company needs to inject growth back into its investment equation. ALPA should understand that it is exactly what markets do when you create artificial impediments,” he wrote. The “impediments” he referred to are the high barriers to entry for new pilots, including the 1,500-hour rule.

Updated to clarify that SkyWest Charter will only hire pilots with 1,500 hours of experience or more.

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