US airlines swap planes for buses on some flight routes amid pilot shortage

‘There simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years’ says United CEO

Lucy Thackray
Monday 25 April 2022 14:30 BST
American Airlines is using buses on some Philadelphia Airport routes
American Airlines is using buses on some Philadelphia Airport routes (Getty Images)

Some US airlines are supplementing flight routes with buses amid a country-wide pilot shortage.

From June American Airlines will offer several bus routes out of Philadelphia, while United has operated bus routes to some ski destinations since 2021.

Meanwhile, other airlines including newcomer Breeze Airways are recruiting pilots from abroad in a bid to keep operating at capacity.

From 3 June, American Airlines will offer buses to passengers travelling between Philadelphia International and airports including Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, using the coach company Landline.

The airports are 72 miles and 56 miles away from Philadelphia’s, respectively.

Buses will be painted with an American Airlines livery, tickets will be sold through the airline alongside flights and bags transferred to the destination from connecting flights in the same way as on a flight.

United has offered four daily bus routes from Denver Airport to Fort Collins, Colorado (56 miles away) and one daily bus from Denver to Breckenridge, Colorado (154 miles) since early 2021, but says of these: “The goal was not to replace flights.”

American did not mention the pilot shortage in its announcement about the bus routes, instead calling it “an easier way” to get between the cities. Elevated fuel prices are also thought to be playing a part in airlines cutting their flight schedules.

However, according to United CEO Scott Kirby, America produces between 5,000 and 7,000 pilots annually - but an average of 14,500 are needed each year between now and 2030 in order for airlines to continue operating at full capacity.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” said United CEO Scott Kirby in a conference video call last week.

“It will likely force United to keep 150 regional planes parked despite increased domestic travel demand.”

“This is going to be one of the biggest constraints for the industry going forward,” agreed Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci of the pilot shortage, at a separate event last week.

The shortage is partly due to pilots being furloughed or choosing to retire during the pandemic, with many airlines raising salaries in a bid to attract new recruits.

“We have not seen this level of service loss since right after 9-11, when that crisis changed the fly-drive equation,” the chief executive of the Regional Airline Association, Faye Malarkey Black, told Bloomberg this week.

“I expect this bad situation to get worse before it gets better, no matter what we do.”

A spokesperson for American Airlines said: “Landline-operated routes are incremental to our schedule – they’re not replacing any flying and aren’t related to pilot staffing.”

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