All Eyes on Regionals As They Continue to Struggle

SkyWest

It’s tough running any airline operation right now, but there’s nothing more difficult than running a regional airline. We took a look at some of the regional troubles in Cranky Network Weekly this week, and I thought I’d bring a chart over here, add a few more, and then dig in for your reading pleasure.

Every airline is having trouble running a decent operation thanks to the combination of pilot shortages, weather, and Omicron running rampant. While the latter one impacts every airline, the former two hit regionals hardest. And since they are already skating on thin ice, even Omicron has a deeper impact.

Below you’ll find a look at the changes made by both SkyWest and Mesa in last weekend’s schedule load. This is the chart we put together in Cranky Network Weekly, and it shows the change in block (minutes, I think we mislabeled it as hours).

SkyWest is generally considered the gold standard of regional airlines. It is the largest regional by far, with more than 30 percent of all regional departures. It is also the only regional to fly for all four US airlines that use regionals: Alaska, American, Delta, and United. (Republic comes in second with three, but it doesn’t serve Alaska.) And SkyWest is forcing cuts across the board this winter as it struggles to stay on top of its game.

Why is this happening? Let’s go back a bit. As you can see in this chart below, SkyWest’s share has only grown as smaller regionals have shrunk or been pushed out of business over the last couple of years.

% of US Regional Departures By Airline

Data via Cirium

The aggregate number of flights is lower than it was before the pandemic, but all the airlines are generally relying on SkyWest to remain a key part of their regional needs. To make that happen, SkyWest has to continue to pump out a lot of departures, and that requires a lot of pilots and other employees.

You can look back and see SkyWest repeatedly saying that it had no trouble at all with recruiting pilots, but that seems to have shifted. The airline’s on-time performance struggled all through December, even well before the holidays — and Omicron — showed up. And the completion factor, well, that tanked when the weather hit, but it still hasn’t recovered.

SkyWest Performance By Day – Holiday 2021/2022

Data via masFlight

Of course, Omicron is causing trouble here, but there’s more to it than that. When it comes to weather, the regionals always suffer most. The big airlines have to choose which flights to cancel when capacity is reduced at an airport due to weather, and they most often end up canceling regional flights. Why? It’s because there are a lot fewer people on those regional aircraft, so they’d rather cancel that than a mainline airplane with a lot more people onboard. This has always been the case.

With weather hitting, crews and airplanes end up in places they weren’t expecting to be, and that puts more strain on an already strained system. After all, those pilot problems are real.

When it comes to pilot jobs, the big airlines don’t have much trouble. After all, they have a great farm system of regional airlines to pull from, and it’s pretty easy to do. Regional airlines tend to pay less and offer a tougher job with shorter flights, less appealing layovers, and a generally tougher work schedule. In some cases, there are flow-through agreements which bring pilots from the regionals to the mainline carriers. But even if there aren’t, many — but not all — regional pilots can’t wait to move up at the first opportunity.

For the big airlines, pilots don’t generally leave until they’re forced to retire. For the regionals, it’s a matter of lining up that incoming funnel of candidates to match up with the outgoing. So many pilots have left the big airlines with early retirement during COVID that now those airlines have to speed up the rate at which they take from regionals. And that’s tough.

Clearly things are going poorly enough in this whole process that SkyWest felt the need to pull back. That would explain why in that first chart above, we see all airlines cutting their short-term flying as operated by SkyWest, but it’s telling that there’s a longer term cut in place with United as well. United was the fastest growing partner for SkyWest, but now that’s being moderated.

The story at Mesa is different in that Mesa has been struggling for longer as it has really been hit harder with pilot recruitment issues. You can see things have been choppy for the airline for months, but December certainly was worse.

Mesa Performance By Day – Oct 2021 to Current

Data via masFlight

With the rise of Omicron, Mesa didn’t have a chance. So it has now pulled back flying for both its partners.

We have already seen significant issues at smaller partners like Air Wisconsin. Now even the bigger ones are getting hit. The big airlines can continue to suck pilots away from the regionals as they see fit, so they are ok for now, at least, they will be once Omicron is done doing its dirty work. Still, if it says United or Delta on the side of that airplane, it doesn’t matter who operates it. Everyone associates that with the big airline brand, so any regional problem is a mainline problem as well.

36 comments on “All Eyes on Regionals As They Continue to Struggle

  1. The use of the misnomer of “regional” airlines should be stopped. 1) They don’t serve regions. 2) They don’t sell tickets. 3)They don’t publish schedules. They are purely rent-a-plane companies and should not be confused or compared with former companies who were called regionals that met the criteria.

    1. But what would be a better succinct name?

      They operate, mostly, regional flights. Of course, with longer range aircraft there are now also longer flights (thin routes) operated by regional airlines.

      From a legal perspective, don’t they operate their own flights (under their own numbers) and their big partners code-share and sell 100% of their available seats?

      1. “They operate, mostly, regional flights”…. on “Regional Jets” as the industry calls them.
        Echoing Oliver’s question… what would be a better succinct name?

          1. Sounds like air taxis.

            Then again, Skywest’s Twitter profile describes them as a “leading air service provider”.

            1. Yes, it’s a challenge to fine-tune this isn’t it. Airlines are also air service providers. Trying to get the “rental/leasing” aspect into it.

        1. Call them:
          1. Third-party flight operators.
          2. Third party flight outsourcing.
          3. Labor recycling.

  2. The use of the misnomer of “regional” airlines should be stopped. 1) They don’t serve regions. 2) They don’t sell tickets. 3)They don’t publish schedules. They are purely rent-a-plane companies and should not be confused or compared with former companies who were called regionals that met the criteria.

  3. “United was the fastest growing partner for United, but now that’s being moderated.” Did you mean to type Skywest?

  4. Mr. Snyder…..Do you think this pilot shortage at the regional level spurred Delta to drop their 4-year degree Pilot minimum requirement last week? Surely, mighty Delta can find enough college graduates between the regional airlines, corporate aviation, and the military to meet their manning needs. They are a premier airline. They don’t need to do this. Why do you think they are intentionally “dumbing down” their Pilot force?

      1. Agreed, but why? Why would Delta do something that could potentially harm their Brand? What do you think, Cranky Flier?

        1. MissTheMasters – I don’t know that it dumbs down their brand. I don’t think anyone will even know that it exists as a requirement unless someone without a degree puts an airplane into the ground. This is just one more way Delta can open up the pilot application spigot further, and that’s its main concern. Does a 4 year degree really matter if you’re qualified? I’m not so sure.

          1. CF -agree with your answer and assessment here. Does a 4-yr degree really mean that you are qualified to fly? This is but one element that airlines look at when hiring new pilots, along with total hours, and ratings. Not everyone can afford to obtain a 4-year degree, in addition to getting all the required ratings.

            I also agree with CF’s overall assessment of the situation, particularly the part about the overall pilot shortage. As Scott Kirby recently told the US Congress, this is one of the largest issues that the US majors currently face, and they will face it for years to come. Delta likely sees this as well, and is trying to figure out how to compete with the other US airlines given this challenge.

            Unfortunately, this situation has been developing for decades, and a big part of the reason is the overall cost required to obtain all the required ratings to become a commercial pilot – it can be in excess of $75k. Not to mention that you have to figure out a job whereby you can also attain the required hours. This is exactly the reason I am not a commercial airline pilot at this point, following in my dad’s footsteps. He was a US Navy A-4 pilot for 5 years, and then a commercial airline pilot for 31 years. My eye sight prevented me from joining the Navy, and the cost to proceed on my own (past my private pilots license with instrument rating) was just too cost prohibitive.

            As Mr. Kirby noted, this issue needs to be resolved. And soon. Or, the pilot pipeline will continue to shrink. And, to echo another comment in this post, there may be no Regional airlines left at that point.

            1. Agreed. I don’t think non-aviation people realize how expensive it is to obtain and maintain even a private pilot’s license, let alone all the headaches that pilots who aspire to jobs at airlines have to go through. I’m not sure many regional jet passengers would be comforted if they knew that the shiny new first officer at the controls is making less than many supervisors at McDonald’s or Walmart.

              On a recreational side, I’d love to fly, but the expense is such that I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford to get even a light sport certification. Every time I do the math, it’s tough to see how people manage to maintain their skills and certifications as private pilots without spending $5-10k per year, minimum…

              Local airfields near me are renting old VFR Cessnas and Pipers in the $110-130/hour range, and IFR equipped small planes in the $140-170/hour range. Those rates are wet, but without instruction. Put another way, if a person with a private pilot’s license does just one flight (of 2-3 hours) a month to keep their skills fresh, that alone will cost them ~$5,000 per year. Worth it? Sure, if you’re into it, but it’s tough to call that anything but an expensive hobby.

            2. The 1500 hour rule was such a gut punch to my potential career. The flight school I was teaching out of went out of business. I had 1175 hours and figured I could just wait for the airlines to start hiring again. Then the 1500 hour rule hit. I was devastated. Especially since that change wouldn’t have done a single thing to stop Colgan 3407. I just had no money to close that gap on my own and no other schools were hiring due to the recession.

          1. Thank you for that link, GS in PDX. Yes, the smaller carriers will have trouble finding highly experienced pilots for awhile. And Delta, United and American will poach highly-experienced pilots from the likes of Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, Alaska, JetBlue and yes, even Southwest.

            My earlier point was specific to Delta significantly lowering its educational requirements. Delta does NOT have to do that. Delta has its pick of the pilot litter. In fact, if Delta required a Masters Degree or higher, it could still fill all its pilot classes. Almost every retired military pilot has an advanced degree. Delta can get as many of them as they want. Note how conspicuously quiet Tim Dunn has been on this topic. That alone is telling about how aghast Delta folks are over this change.

            To those who believe being a major airline Captain is easy, I recommend you give it a try. Find a way to get the time. Go to 1-800-ALL-ATPS and get your ratings. It’s so much easier now than it was 40 years ago when I came up. You go in debt for $75,000 and you get a job flying a jet within 2 years. Regional pay is much higher now. You fly there 2-3 years, get picked up by a major and make $100K the first year. Makes that $75K investment look pretty cheap. Even a Crew Scheduler can do it and I know several who have.

            You can be a Captain at Delta in 2 years. Some guy at FedEx held a 757 Captain slot at 4 MONTHS. United recently closed a system bid with unfilled Captain openings. They have new-hire pilots going to the right seat of the 777. American is retiring THOUSANDS over the next 4 years. Those seats need filling. Have at it, my friends.

        2. Dropping the four year degree does not dumb down the brand. The majority of Delta employees likely do not have college degrees. However pilots without degrees still remain highly specialized and technical. If your electrician or plumber lack a college degree but they can build you the perfect systems do you care? No. There are hordes of pilots without degrees who fly extremely well. The airlines don’t want to discourage these pilots form applying. Because not everyone can fly an airplane. Many people lack the hand/eye coordination, the decision making or just cant grind themselves through the process of being certified.

    1. I work in pilot scheduling and trust me when I say you do not need to be smart to fly airplanes, you just have to know how to fly airplanes :D

      1. That’s where you are mistaken, my friend. Being able to fly a plane is the starting point. The question isn’t “Can you fly?” The question is: “Can you lead?” Leadership requires life experience, flight experience, and the confidence of your entire Crew.

        Here’s a typical Summer evening scenario. There is a solid line of thunderstorms between you and your destination, DEN. Your first alternate is Colorado Springs, but, like Denver, it’s on the back side of the weather. Your second alternate is Garden City, KS (KGCK). The weather there is good, but your airline doesn’t fly there, so if you divert there, you’re on your own. Not only that, but wherever you land, you will “time out”, effectively stranding all your passengers AND your Crew.

        Dispatch sends you a message. It says the storms have passed through Albuquerque and you will land there with fuel so low that a go-around will trigger a low-fuel warning. The winds there are at 30knots on the back side of the weather there. This means you may get a wind shear alert, requiring either a mandatory go-around and subsequent low-fuel emergency declaration or an intentional deviation from your Operations Manual in ignoring the wind shear warning and attempting a landing anyway.

        What would you do?

  5. I’m a private pilot and the stress on the system gets more pronounced the further down the funnel you go. My flight school in Chicago (where I still rent) sounds out notes frequently begging for Certified Flight Instructors. To me, that’s going to be the bigger challenge – actually ensuring an infrastructure to train pilots.

  6. Right now American is hiring 70 per week… United around 60… add in the other airlines and cargo… by the end of the year, it will be lucky if there are any regionals left… The question who folds first…

    1. But can the big four airlines actually operate/survive without the feeder flights from the regionals? Every trip I take starts and ends with a ride on a small jet or turboprop.

      1. If operating the regionals gets too expensive or if the regionals force the mainline carriers to reduce flights, the airlines can shift some flights back to mainline aircraft (like 3/day CRJ takes 6 pilots while 1/day 737 takes 2 pilots). Or just drop the least profitable regional destinations.

  7. This is the biggest factor in stopping the Big 3 from getting back to pre-COVID level of block hours. The big 3 will have no issue finding enough pilots and FAs for their mainline operation. They can hire from LCCs and regional. The LCCs will plunder the regional ranks. Where are regional carriers finding qualified candidates from. They can promise flow to mainline as much as they want, but those same pilots can just join NK and then a big 3 a couple of years later.

    How are RJ not going to have pilot shortage when ULCCs are doubling in fleet size in 5 years? How are they not going to have a general labor shortage when we have a general one in the market place?

    Even mainline are having trouble hiring everyone they need.

    1. Mainline’s could insource now, up-gauge more mainline flights to wide-body aircraft and more narrow bodies to replace regional flying at lower frequency. The added mainline growth of mainline flights will be needed to hire away from ULCCs those pilots who want an international widebody career—the pinnacle of job of the airline pilot profession.

      1. First, where are they going to find wide body aircraft? They already can’t get enough of them.

        With regard to using more larger narrow body jets, they could but that really makes it inefficient at the gates and ticket counters. You’d rather have a consistent flow through the day rather than a couple of big cruches, which create major lines.

        1. Good question. South Korea maybe with the Asiana and Korean merger. Norwegian and any other international carrier in trouble.

  8. This was inevitable. Last year the majors processed about three to four years’ worth of retirements in a single year as everyone offered early outs. This year they’re trying to recover to earlier staffing levels and even grow. The pilot training industry is stressed trying to keep up with retirements in real time, it certainly cannot supply four times the normal amount.

    Using very rough numbers, if 4000 pilots retire per year and each new pilot takes 1500 hrs of fight time, you need 6 million training hours flown annually. To replace all those early retirements will take on the order of 20 million hours. That training pipeline does not exist. I’m not even sure if the refineries could supply that much avgas in a one-off surge.

    Personally I’d have no problem reducing 1500 hrs by 5:1 or even 10:1 for PIC on IFR. That’s the skill, experience, and decision making that are needed in the airline world. Refocus pilot training from quantity to quality and the training capacity greatly increases while the costs dramatically decrease.

    1. Eric, you hit on my complaint with the hour requirement. It’s not helpful, and here is why. Those 1500 hours? A large chunk of pilots get those hours by serving as a CFI. Sounds good until you realize that 1300 or more of those hours are spent flying the same six exercises in a Cessna 172, over and over, in perfect weather.

      There is no practice on how to deal with more dodgy conditions, or with busy Class B airports, or pressure to keep a schedule. It’s an arbitrary number that doesn’t mean much.

      I would mandate 250 hours in IFR and 500 overall and call it good.

  9. The 1500 hour minimum that Congress mandated has contributed to this mess. I am not sure that it would have helped the Colgan situation anyway. Both pilots had plenty of stick time when the accident occurred. I haven’t heard of many airlines lowering their turbine time requirements so being a CFII on a 172 may not get you where you want to go. I found the comments on the amount of time and fuel required very interesting. One last thing, my Dad talked about low minimums for the airlines in 60’s. I never confirmed that, but aren’t today’s airplane easier (better) to fly than first generation jets?

    1. Jimmy – I’d say in general the automation today makes it much easier to fly airplanes in all types of weather. Whether or not “easier” is better is a debate for the pilots!

    2. Your father told the truth. In the mid 60s, there was a hiring boom due to good economic times, the wide-spread introduction of turbojets at the major airlines, and the lack of available military pilots due to the Vietnam War. 300-hour pilots, with commercial license and instrument ratings, were being hired by the likes of Eastern Air Lines, the largest airline in the free world at the time. They actually obtained their multi-engine rating during new-hire training. They received their ATR (now ATP) when they actually upgraded to Captain after spending many years as Flight Engineers and many years after advancing to First Officer.

    3. Jimmy J – couldn’t agree with you more re: the 1500 hour mandate by the US Congress. So, here is the first issue with that in my mind – what business does the US Congress have in setting such a mandate? Are any of them experienced commercial pilots? Why does this specific employment class within the US Aviation industry seem to be the only one (in the entire USA) that is targeted by a mandated minimum hour requirement to get a job, and then a mandated age requirement where you have to retire? [age discriminated against on the retirement end, if you want to go that strongly] Again, do our most experienced pilots magically lose their ability to pilot an aircraft on the day that they turn 65 years old? Not likely. Similarly, does a surgeon lose his ability to perform the same surgeries he has been performing regularly for the past 20-25 years? Not likely. Yet, this surgeon is allowed to continue, even past age 70 – I know, I work with a surgeon now who is 70+ years old, and shows no signs of slowing down yet.

      Where is the DATA behind requiring pilots to retire at age 65? Has the FAA ever presented any to the US Congress? Not likely. I would imagine that the FAA and/or airlines have data on how many ‘serious incidents’ were at the hands of their more experienced pilots. And, likewise, I would imagine that they have data regarding how many of these types of incidents involved younger, less experienced pilots. It is time to turn to decades of data that should be amassed by now to set some new, practical limits. And, once in place, keep studying to see if the changes made bear out the data, and adjust again as necessary. It is time to follow a data-driven approach, not someone’s “pulled-it-out-of-you-know-where because it makes me feel good” approach.

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