The Pilot Shortage Is Crippling Small Town Airports Right & Left

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Pilot Shortage Regional Airlines

The Pilot Shortage Is Crippling Small Town Airports Right & Left

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about how the pilot shortage is hitting small town airports the hardest. They warn that getting into, or out of, these smaller town airports will be very difficult this summer and beyond. Knowing that many don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription I figured I would highlight some of the more interesting facts. This all plays into the reasons that I am mostly boycotting summer travel.

Regional Airlines Cutting Flights & Pulling Out Of Airports Entirely

Even as airline and hotel prices are spiking to highs I have not personally seen before, people continue to swarm the airports. Even though prices are soaring this summer flight bookings are up 11% when compared to last summer. And a majority of these travelers are of the leisure variety, versus a heavy mix of business travelers like in the past. That means a good chunk of them are coming to, and going from, smaller, more regional airports.

This situation has become so dire that it has led to 30 airports in the US losing at least half of the departure flights they had in 2019. Back in March SkyWest Airlines alerted officials that it would need to end service completely at 29 airports. SkyWest is the only provider in nearly all of those cities too. The reason cited, a shortage of airline pilots.

Pilot Shortage Regional Airlines

Regional Airlines Are Extremely Important To The US Airline Network

People might not realize that regional airlines play a massive roll in the domestic travel scene. They account for more than 40% of US air traffic each year. They work with the larger airlines and provide transportation to hub cities. This in turn connects small towns to the greater airline network. These regional airlines play such a monumental roll that a surprising two thirds of US airports are relying exclusively on them for their transportation services.

The Pilot Shortage Has Been A Growing Problem For A While

A pilot shortage has long been creeping up on the industry. The pandemic only added fuel to the fire, on one hand pumping the breaks on the new pilot pipeline. It also led to many pilots leaving the industry for early retirement packages during the two year slow down. This was in part because airlines anticipated a much slower return to previous travel levels.

Airlines have been trying to catch up ever since and are on a hiring spree of 10,000 pilots this year. To put that number into perspective, it is 2X to 3X higher than years in the past. One major roadblock continues to be the lengthy training requirements, which some have asked to be reduced. Even with this major push to hire the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be openings for 14,500 pilots a year for the next decade.

The future holds no refuge either with so many pilots approaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 over the next several years. It is such a problem that lawmakers are considering passing legislation to raise the required retirement age for pilots.

Pilot Shortage Regional Airlines

Larger Airlines Are Feeling It Too

This is not only hitting the smaller carriers though. Even United has 150 regional jets grounded due to a lack of pilots. They have been pulling out of some regional markets throughout the year as well.

Another issue that has been hurting the smaller, regional carriers is that their pilots have been leaving at a higher than normal rate. Larger airlines can offer higher pay and are looking to fill their holes quickly by plucking experienced pilots from the smaller airlines.

Fuel Prices Are Playing Their Part

The pilot shortage isn’t the only thing leading to empty regional airports though. Skyrocketing fuel prices have led the airlines to reconsider niche routes. Many have no become unprofitable and they are reducing frequency greatly or pulling out all together.

Airports are doing all they can to fight a loss of coverage. They have tried to strike deals with startup airlines, guaranteed certain revenue levels and encouraged locals to use their airport whenever possible. These deals could end up costing the local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars if the numbers aren’t hit.

Pilot Shortage: Final Thoughts

All of this paints a pretty grim picture for air travel in the US over the next few years. Especially if your closest airport is smaller with only a few airlines covering your area. All it takes is one to pull out to completely change the way you travel. In areas where the next closest airport is hundreds of miles away it would make visiting family etc. extremely difficult.

For more details and some first hand accounts of what is going on out there be sure to check out the Wall Street Journal article.

Mark Ostermann
Mark Ostermann is a father, husband and miles/points fanatic. He left the corporate world after starting a family in order to be a stay at home dad. Mark is constantly looking at ways to save money and stay within budget while also taking awesome vacations with his family. When he isn't caring for his family or taking a weekend trip, Mark is working towards his goal of visiting every Major League Baseball ballpark.

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  1. I’ve been flying heavily for work since 2014 with a full 12-month pandemic halt in there, but I’m back to full time mode. I fly out of OKC and pre-CV primarily used United. This year UAL dropped about half its flights to Houston and the Newark and IAD direct flights. This led to much higher prices on the remaining flights to IAH and ORD from fewer seats and forcing the EWR and IAD passengers to connect in one of those before going on. I’ve had to shift to AA. They still have a lot of flights out and with direct to CLT, MIA, or DFW I can get about anywhere with 1 stop. They seemed to recognize my experience with the other airline because I even got an email letting me know they had given me status from a challenge I didn’t know I was participating in. Pretty happy with it so far, not so much the completely full planes.

  2. Delta is ready to abandon all Central IL airports. They left PIA and SPI. BMI is down to just ATL. Won’t be much longer until there are no Delta flights from downstate IL.

  3. Well for starters, they can boost the compensation for pilots starting out. Same issue with the truckers. No one wants to go into a profession that pays the same as a fulltime postmates driver (at least in the beginning of their flying career)

  4. My husband and I had our Delta flight home from VPS cancelled at 3:25 a.m. Memorial Day weekend. We had to get home due to work obligations. Unfortunately the Chase UR portal was down, so we had to spend $800ish on WN tickets to get home at the last minute. I’m still a little irked over this.

    We have plans to fly to/from another small airport later this month. One of those flights is on Delta. I already have a backup booked. Hopefully I don’t have issues again.

    I would avoid summer travel if I had a choice, but if I don’t travel now then I’ll have to wait a year or so (baby coming soon and not traveling with a newborn).

    • Memorial Day weekend was such a mess. Hopefully you got something back out of Delta for the trouble.


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