American Airlines has grounded 100 planes due to a shortage of pilots

A shortage of retired pilots and pandemic cuts have forced Fort Worth-based American Airlines to ground about 100 of its smaller regional planes, even amid strong summer passenger demand.

“There’s a supply and demand imbalance right now, and it’s really within the ranks of the regional carrier,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said Friday at the Strategic Decisions Investor Conference in New York. “We probably have 100 or close to 100 planes that are out of production right now, and they’re not flying.”

Isom’s comments come amid soaring airfares as travelers eager to get out after two years of pandemic restrictions, while airlines work to return to pre-pandemic flying levels. Almost every airline in the industry faces similar issues with the struggle to replace pilots and other key workers, even though many of them expect record revenues.

Airlines like to take advantage of higher ticket prices due to higher consumer demand. Airfares for summer trips are up about 48% compared to 2019, according to travel website Huber. This more than offsets higher fuel and labor costs. American raised its second-quarter revenue forecast on Friday and now expects sales to be 11% to 13% higher than it did during the same period in the pre-pandemic 2019 period.

The summer travel season of 2022 saw airlines trying to balance their ability to fly larger schedules against the risk of collapse if operations were too tight. As airlines such as Delta, JetBlue and Southwest cut their flights to focus on reducing delays, American Airlines flies with about 20% more schedule than its nearest Delta competitor.

Isom said the biggest obstacle is the number of pilots American Airlines and its regional carriers can employ. About 1,000 of the 15,000 American pilots have received early retirement packages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with a large number of pilots set to reach mandatory retirement age, airlines such as America have been left with key staff shortfalls.

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American filled that gap by hiring pilots from regional carriers, including its wholly owned airlines such as Envoy and Piedmont. This, in turn, leaves a shortage of pilots to fly the smaller 50- and 75-passenger aircraft.

There are restrictions on aircraft. Isom said there are limitations around pilots from a main line perspective and through training.

Isom said American has been able to offset some of the flight reductions by using larger regional planes and parking smaller models.

While this helps carry more passengers, using larger planes also means fewer flights, especially to smaller destinations. Regional airlines operate 43% of the country’s flights, according to the Federation of Regional Airlines, and only two-thirds of the country’s airports are served by regional carriers.

Americans and others have increased salaries for regional pilots and added signing and retention bonuses for helping students through flight school. Isom said the economic incentives for jobs that pay more than $200,000 a year should eventually attract more pilots, but it could take several years to get the number of pilots needed to properly hire airlines.

“I see a demand for travel,” Isom said. “I see an industry that was a bit constrained and is now trying to increase its size and is still facing these constraints.”

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