U.S. Regional Airlines Battle With Hiring, Retaining Pilots

Credit: Joe Pries

WASHINGTON—The acute shortage of pilots, especially captains, continues to be a top challenge for U.S. commuter airlines, with the CEO of one of the largest regional operators saying that his airline is short by some 1,200 pilots.

Speaking at the Regional Airline Association’s (RAA) Leaders Conference in Washington Sept. 26, SkyWest Airlines President and CEO Chip Childs said his Utah-based airline has around 4,300 pilots today, far short of where it stood in 2019, while demand for air service in smaller cities is growing, exacerbating the pilot gap that almost all U.S. regional carriers are grappling with.

Childs, who also chairs the RAA board of directors, pointed out that many Americans moved from large to small cities during the pandemic, resulting in new, high demand for regional air service.

SkyWest has a fleet of more than 130 Embraer E175s and some 250 Bombardier CRJs operating for Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. Childs said that in 2019, the carrier had established a strong pilot pipeline through some 200 schools. But the pandemic and retirements have “snapped back” the carrier into pilot shortage mode.

SkyWest is far from alone. The U.S. major airlines, to fill their own gaps when post-pandemic demand for flights surged, have recruited heavily from the regionals.

“We’ve become extraordinarily short of captains,” Childs said. “We are trying to do the things it takes to create captains and keep captains.”

In a CEO panel session, Republic Airways President and CEO Bryan Bedford said the labor shortage affecting regionals went beyond pilots. Republic is the largest carrier operating in the U.S. northeast/New York metro area, where airspace has been severely constrained by a shortage of air traffic controllers. “From a customer perspective, that is felt day by day by day,” Bedford said.

Rick Leach, president and CEO at Go Jet Airlines, a Bombardier CRJ550 operator for United, said the labor issue was about pilots, but also about technicians and others who support the industry. “There’s a lot of demand and opportunity,” he said, but it’s about how to get people trained and operational as soon and as safely as possible. “It’s tough to find those candidates, especially at the captain level,” he said.

Dion Flannery, president and CEO at PSA Airlines, the wholly owned regional arm of American Airlines, concurred it was a tough problem. “Our focus is trying to come to peace with running a business model that says give us your last available flight hour every moment and get it right, six months ahead of time,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of training or training capacity,” Bedford said. “What has changed over the last 18 months is that the pilot qualifications from the larger carriers have changed. It used to be a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and minimum of 2,000 hr. of command experience before they would be considered by a major, and those qualifications have now been removed, almost in their entirety. And so essentially, once we onboard someone and train them and demonstrate they have the competence to fly as a first officer, they are now viable at the major airlines, so we are not able to retain that experience.”

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.