Pilot shortage a blow to regional airports

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Crater Lake Klamath Regional Airport in Oregon hasn't had commercial air service since June 2014.

Prior to June 2014, residents of Klamath Falls in south-central Oregon had access to one flight daily to San Francisco and Portland from the Crater Lake Klamath Regional Airport.

But in that month, United Express, in conjunction with flight operator SkyWest, ended the flights, leaving the seat of Klamath County, population 65,000, without commercial air service.

The reason SkyWest said it was making the move, according to airport director John Barsalou, was because the regional carrier was in the midst of phasing out its 30-seat, twin-engine Embraer 120 Brasilia fleet, a process the carrier completed last year. But Klamath Falls couldn’t generate enough demand to support the 50-seat planes that were to remain in SkyWest’s fleet.

Barsalou said the Klamath Falls community also believed another factor was at play: Service on the San Francisco flight had become less reliable due to a pilot shortage that is impacting regional airlines throughout the U.S.

Eighteen months later, Klamath Falls is still without commercial airline service, meaning residents of the area must drive 70 miles through a tricky mountain pass to Medford, Ore., or go several hours farther to Reno or Portland to catch a flight.

Meanwhile, said Klamath County Chamber of Commerce executive director Charles Massey, the loss of the airport has strained the Klamath County economy and has led the building products maker Jeld-Wen to increase the pace with which it is transferring employees from the area to its North American headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

“Their sales representatives are no longer based here in Klamath because they can’t get out of the community as easily,” Massey said.

The challenges faced by Klamath Falls are not unique. Since the second quarter of 2013, 29 small airports in the continental U.S. have lost commercial service, according to a list provided by the trade group American Association of Airport Executives. All were in  small towns like Port Angeles, Wash., and resort towns such as Telluride, Colo. Bigger communities, such as Athens, Ga., have also lost their commercial air service.

Even towns and cities that qualify for federally subsidized flights through the Essential Air Service (EAS) program have not been immune. EAS communities Macon, Ga.; Vernal and Moab, Utah; Muscle Shoals, Ala.; and Tupelo, Miss., all lost their commercial service over the past 15 months.

As was the case in Klamath, the closures are being partially driven by the pilot shortage that is plaguing regional U.S. airlines. Recruitment competition from growing, higher-paying foreign carriers, such as Emirates, is one cause of the shortage. But a bigger issue is a congressionally mandated rule that took effect in 2013 that increased the minimum time a pilot must have in the cockpit in order to fly for a commercial airline from 250 hours to 1,500 hours.

One issue that is expected to exacerbate the problem will be the retirement of an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 pilots between now and 2022 at American, Delta, Southwest and United. That’s nearly as many pilots as staff the entire regional U.S. network, which also serves as the predominant recruiting network for the mainline carriers.

The shortage is having a disproportionate impact on the airports that are serviced only by regional carriers. For example, Great Lakes Airlines, which operates small turboprop planes, explained in its fall 2015 earnings report that the pilot shortage and the 1,500-hour rule are the reasons the company has had no choice but to reduce its network of mostly small towns interspersed with big city hubs from 47 airports in August 2013 to just 22 as of late last year.

“Small-community air service is being lost as we reduce our level of operations to match pilot supply,” the airline stated.

As the Klamath Falls case illustrates, small U.S. airports face a second major peril as well, the marked shift by Delta, American and United to larger planes within their regional networks in an effort to increase efficiency.

Since 2001, U.S. legacy carriers have reduced the number of small turboprop planes in their regional networks from 1,200 to 162, according to the airline industry analyst Intervista Consulting. Their use of mid-size, 50-seat regional jets has also been on the wane in recent years, with the number having dropped from a 2004 peak of nearly 1,400 to 838 in 2015.

In the meantime, the Big Three have increased the number of 70- to 90-seat planes in their regional networks from 18 to 877 since 2001.

As that trend continues, far more small airports, unable to fill the larger planes, could be left out in the cold, according to Intervista’s Bill Swelbar.

“Can Casper, Wyo., support the larger jet,” Swelbar asked rhetorically. “How about Abilene, Tex.?”

Swelbar warned that 150 to 200 small airport markets currently generate insufficient demand to support the larger jets. Making matters worse, he projected that by 2017 the pilot shortage will cause legacy carriers to begin retiring small planes faster than they are replacing those seats with the larger regional jets, accelerating the contraction of the regional network.

Swelbar is not alone in his projections. In a 2014 report, the Colorado-based consulting firm Flightpath Economics wrote that the pilot shortage, combined with factors such as traffic trends and network connectivity, had left 239 airports in the continental U.S. at risk of losing commercial service.

Such worries haven’t been lost on the American Association of Airport Executives. In December, the organization sent letters to key members of Congress asking them to support a proposal by regional airlines to develop a training program that would reduce the 1,500-hour requirement while providing more selective and targeted pilot instruction.

In an interview, association chair Jeff Mulder said that because it takes two years to train a pilot, he’s expecting to see more airports close in the short term.

“It starts with someone to fly the airplane, and without that, nothing is going to happen,” Mulder said.

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