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
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
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
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.