Staffing Woes, Airbus Transition Constrain Alaska’s Capacity Growth

Credit: Rob Finlayson

Staffing challenges and accelerating the exit of its A320 operations have forced Alaska Air Group to cut its full year 2022 capacity guidance. 

The company now expects its 2022 capacity to be flat to down 3% compared with 2019. At one point, Alaska expected its supply would grow 2% to 6% this year versus pre-pandemic levels, but later revised that forecast to an increase of 1% to 3%. 

Alaska attributed the latest revision to rising fuel prices, staffing headwinds and its decision to speed up its exit of Airbus A320 operations to early 2023 from 2024. Alaska has historically been an all-Boeing operator, but inherited Airbus narrowbodies when it acquired Virgin America in 2016. 

The company recently had to cut 2% of its schedule through the end of June after canceling hundreds of flights during the first few days of April due to a backlog in its training program. 

Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci told analysts and investors during an April 21 earnings call that Alaska plans to hire 600 mainline pilots this year and 200 for its regional operations. “We’re on track for the regional side,” he said, and so far, roughly 300 mainline pilots have been hired. 

While the airline is making progress on pilot hiring, “it’s a huge strain on our training systems,” said Minicucci, adding Alaska is working to train its pilots in an efficient manner and “get them out on the line.” 

During early April, “pilots were stuck in the schoolhouse,” Alaska’s CEO stated, noting roughly 60 pilots were not trained in time to execute its schedule. 

As a result, Alaska is “de-risking the operation a little bit” to create some breathing room in its schedule, Minicucci explained. 

Working to shed its Airbus fleet is also a big strain for Alaska. The airline has to train 600-700 Airbus pilots on its Boeing jets, and ensure that transition is executed in a way that doesn’t impact the company’s network, explained Alaska CFO Shane Tackett. 

Tackett said Alaska is aiming to shed the A320s by early 2023, and there is a plan in place to exit that subfleet. However, “I’m sure it will shift around a bit,” he said.

The Aviation Week Fleet Discovery database shows Alaska has 30 A320s in service and 13 in storage. During 2020 Alaska opted to park 10 A319s, and eight remain in storage. 

Alaska is also operating 10 Airbus A321s, and Tackett explained Alaska is targeting “moving beyond those by the end of 2023.” 

Despite facing challenges in staffing and its fleet transition, Alaska is joining many U.S. airlines in offering a robust forecast for the second quarter. The company expects to post a profit on revenue growth of 5% to 8% compared with 2019. Its capacity for the quarter will fall by 6% to 9% compared with pre-pandemic levels. 

For the first quarter, Alaska posted $1.7 billion in revenue compared with $797 million in 2021. The carrier’s net loss was $143 million. 

Lori Ranson

Lori covers North American and Latin airlines for Aviation Week and is also a Senior Analyst for CAPA - Centre for Aviation.