Alaska Airlines’ Capacity Growth Curtailed By Staffing Shortages

Credit: Alaska Airlines

Staffing challenges and accelerating its exit from Airbus A320 operations have forced Alaska Airlines to cut its full-year 2022 capacity guidance.

The company now expects its 2022 capacity to be flat to down 3% compared with 2019.

Alaska attributed the forecast to rising fuel prices, staffing headwinds and its decision to speed up its exit of 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. 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,” Minicucci said, 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,” Minicucci said, noting roughly 60 pilots were not trained in time to execute the airline’s planned schedule. As a result, Alaska is “de-risking the operation a little bit” to create some breathing room in its schedule, Minicucci explained.

CFO Shane Tackett said Alaska is aiming to retire its A320s by early 2023. 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. Tackett said Alaska is targeting “moving beyond those by the end of 2023.”

Despite facing challenges in staffing and its fleet transition, Alaska is joining many US airlines in offering a robust forecast for second-quarter demand, but its capacity for the three-month period will still be down 6-9% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Alaska posted a net loss of $143 million in the 2022 first quarter.

Lori Ranson

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