On June 14, SkyWest’s newly-formed subidiary SW Charter Holdings, Inc bought a nearly defunct operator called USAC 691 Airways LLC. This move, as unlikely as it may seem, was planned in order to set off a chain reaction. It will allow SkyWest to do an end run around current pilot rules. That in turn will help the airline to create a pilot pipeline and restore service to a variety of cities which it had decided to abandon earlier this year.
SkyWest, like all regional airlines, has struggled to attract enough regional pilots to backfill the enormous number who are leaving to fly for the majors as those airlines see mass early retirements. The situation had started off by forcing regionals to curtail service and park airplanes. Earlier this year, it became dire enough that SkyWest announced it would end service to 29 cities that it flew under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, because it just couldn’t staff the 50-seaters it used to fly those routes while still maintaining the more important contracts flying for Alaska, American, Delta, and United.
The list of routes was broad, and they were largely focused on Denver and Chicago as you can see here.
Proposed Routes Abandoned by SkyWest
With the situation becoming increasingly desperate, SkyWest crafted a plan and made its move for USAC 691 Airways. This was effectively just buying a certificate that would allow SkyWest to create a subsidiary that wouldn’t have to fly under Part 121 rules.
The problem for SkyWest and the other regionals was the ill-advised increase in pilot hours required to 1,500 (with few exceptions) before being allowed to fly in the right seat of a commercial aircraft. That created a lengthy and expensive process for anyone who wanted to become a pilot, and it lengthened the time before someone could be put to work for an airline. Airlines have tried a variety of ways to adapt to the new reality, and one of those involves trying to go around the rules. That’s the tack SkyWest is taking with this new subsidiary.
This “1,500 hour rule” applies to airlines flying under federal Part 121 rules. That applies to any regularly-scheduled airline with aircraft having 10 or more seats. Other than only flying 9-seaters, there is one way around this rule. Airlines have increasingly discovered the ability to fly under less strict Part 135 rules using Part 380. This allows airlines to operate public charters with no more than 30 seats under Part 135 rules. In other words, they can put pilots in the right seat with fewer hours and still put 30 seats on an airplane.
It’s no coincidence that JSX, for example, puts only 30 seats on its ERJ aircraft that could hold more. SkyWest will now do the same, taking 18 of its 50-seat CRJs and converting them down to a more spacious 30 seats. With that, it will ramp up to serving these routes…
Proposed Routes for SkyWest Charters
Gee, these two maps look similar, don’t they? Many of these are EAS routes, and as SkyWest spokesperson Marissa Snow told me, “…while not all the routes are EAS, for those that are we’ll continue to work with the DOT and each market on what any implementation would look like.”
SkyWest will also try to work with local communities to get funding to support these routes, especially those that aren’t EAS. The airline’s applicaton to DOT was full of letters of support from communities desperately hoping to hang on to their jet flights.
Let’s just put aside the absurdity of the regulation here for a moment. I mean, it makes perfect sense to me that an airplane with 30 seats is totally safe when flown by less experienced pilots, but as soon as that same airplane has 31 seats, HELL NO. Let’s ask the bigger question… is this unsafe?
I don’t feel that way. First of all, yes, you can have less experience pilots in the right seat. But they can’t be completely inexperienced. Further, that captain is still required to have 1,500 hours of flying time by rule. So it’s not like there are two kids with no experience flying these airplanes.
It’s right to question whether number of hours is a good metric. We’ve seen plenty of examples saying no, it is not. Just look at what caused this regulation in the first place, the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in 2009. This was attributed to fatigue and poor piloting. But guess what? Both pilots on that airplane had more than 1,500 hours. (The captain had 3,379 and the first officer 2,244.) There’s also Atlas Air 3591 which crashed in Houston back in 2019. The first officer there was largely faulted for his poor piloting, but he had over 5,000 hours.
So, if you don’t believe that the number of hours defines a “good” pilot, then this shouldn’t bother you. This is just an example of a company using the government’s rules against it. But of course, if you think that more hours makes a good pilot, then you might not enjoy this plan.
One thing is clear, though SkyWest used to fly these routes under the United Express banner, as I understand it, that will no longer be possible since the new airline is not a Part 121 operator. That doesn’t mean United can’t still sell connecting flights, but it would be as an interline partner which gives a little more transparency. (United does this today with Denver Air Connection flights, but we don’t know for sure that this arrangement would exist with SkyWest.)
So, credit to SkyWest for taking a swing at this.