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Air travel has increased significantly in the last few months after the spread of COVID had postponed and canceled many people’s 2020 travel plans. Airports across the U.S. have seen more than two million travelers on most days in November and December this year, which is a sharp jump from the 500,000 to 900,000 people traveling at this same time last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). But with more travelers comes more issues. Major airlines including American Airlines, Frontier, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, have all had to cancel numerous flights over the last two months. Now, United’s CEO is offering his perspective on the real reason why so many airlines have had to cut flights. Read on to find out what this could mean for your travel plans.
During a Dec. 15 Senate hearing concerning the U.S. airline industry, the heads of several major airlines discussed current issues with air travel. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said his company is dealing with a lack of pilots who can fly planes. “There has been a looming pilot shortage for the last decade in the United States, and going through COVID it became an actual pilot shortage,” he said during the hearing, per The Points Guy.
The pilot shortage is the result of both the pandemic and the number of pilots stepping down after reaching the mandatory retirement age, TravelPulse reports. Pilots in the U.S. are allowed to fly until they are 65 in accordance with the Fair Treatment for Experience Pilots Act, which went into effect in 2007 and raised the age limit from 60, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“I’m a little less optimistic that that situation is going to reverse itself in the near term unless we do something to increase the supply of pilots,” Kirby said.
According to Kirby, this pilot shortage is disproportionally affecting the airline’s flights from smaller, regional communities. Nearly 100 of United’s regional airplanes are unable to be used right now because of this issue.
“So all of us, particularly our regional partners, simply don’t have enough airplanes to fly. We have almost 100 airplanes effectively grounded right now—regional aircrafts—because there’s not enough pilots to fly them, which means we can’t at the moment fly to all the small communities that we would like to. It’s really about not having enough pilots.”
Kirby briefly touched on the pilot shortage last month at a Skift Forum, but this is the first time he has publicly confirmed that the airline has had to curb nearly 100 regional aircrafts, according to The Points Guy. “We don’t have enough pilots to fly all the airplanes,” Kirby said during the November forum, per Airline Weekly. “So the 50-seaters are at the bottom of that pile, and markets that rely on 50-seaters are the ones that are going to lose service.”
Last month, United starting cutting service to 11 regional airports in small U.S. cities from its hubs in Houston, Denver, and Chicago. The airline dropped flights from Twin Falls, Idaho, on Nov. 30, and then on Jan. 3, it’s set to drop the remaining 10 cities: Kalamazoo, Michigan; College Station, Texas; Columbia, Missouri; Mosinee, Wisconsin; Evansville, Indiana; Killeen-Fort Hood, Texas; Lansing Michigan; Monroe, Louisiana; Pierre, South Dakota; and Watertown, South Dakota.
“Many different factors determine a successful route, and our decisions include careful evaluation of our overall network, fleet, resources at our regional partners, and yields. With that in mind, we have determined that these particular routes are not sustainable for the long-term,” United told Insider at the time.
Earlier in December, Delta Air Lines had to pare down flights from Brunswick Golden Isles Airport in Glynn County, Georgia to Atlanta, despite this route being routinely overbooked due to high demand, according to The Brunswick News. During a development meeting on Dec. 7, Rob Burr, the executive director of the Glynn County Airport Authority, said that Delta is cutting these flights because of a shortage of pilots.
“Delta is struggling to staff. We have strong demand, but the supply is not there,” Burr said at the meeting.
Back in October, Delta CEO Ed Bastian warned of an impending pilot shortage. “There is a looming shortage coming. It’s not here yet. But it’s on its way,” Bastian said during a U.S. Travel Associations conference on Oct. 26, as reported by TravelPulse.