By David Shepardson and Rajesh Kumar Singh
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) -Mesa Air Group Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Ornstein told a U.S. Senate panel on Friday that the airline lost nearly 5% of its pilots in April to larger carriers, underscoring a staffing shortage the industry is grappling with as travel demand surges.
“The pilot shortage is the single greatest threat to the industry I have witnessed since 9/11,” Ornstein told the Senate Commerce aviation subcommittee at a hearing in Arizona Friday. He said Mesa Airlines “lost almost 5% of our pilot workforce in one month as major airlines and operators of larger jets hired our pilots.”
Pilot shortages have dogged carriers for years. Despite $54 billion in U.S. government COVID-19 airline payroll funding, many airlines paused hiring and offered buyouts and retirement packages to thousands of aviators.
A snap back in travel demand, however, has left them scrambling to ramp up staffing. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and United Airlines are looking to hire 200 pilots each a month.
Staffing woes have marred operations in recent weeks at carriers such as Alaska Air (NYSE:ALK) Group Inc and JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) Corp, resulting in mass flight cancellations. To prevent further disruption, airlines have cut summer schedules.
Shortages are even more acute at regional airlines, which are facing a soaring attrition rate because of poaching by higher-paying national carriers.
In March, SkyWest (NASDAQ:SKYW) said it planned to end service to 29 communities under the government’s subsidy program to provide air service to smaller communities, blaming insufficient pilots.
Mesa noted regional airlines provide service to 65% of the nation’s commercially served airports.
“Unless significant action is taken soon, I believe this critical lifeline is in jeopardy,” Ornstein said, adding the U.S could also make it easier to allow qualified foreign pilots to join the U.S. pilot workforce.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who chairs the panel holding the hearing, noted just 5% of U.S. pilots are women and about 6% are people of color and said Congress plans to look at ways to “strengthen the pipeline, support opportunities to diversify the workorce” and consider changes to aviation workforce development grant programs.
Some airlines have called on U.S. regulators to revise pilot training requirements, allowing them to hire pilots with less experience. But the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest pilot union, is opposed to the proposal.
“Some argue that we must lower standards to open the doors of opportunity — we flatly reject that,” ALPA official Paul Ryder told the committee.