How removing seats from aircraft will help a top regional carrier cope with the pilot shortage

Jun 22, 2022

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The nation’s largest regional airline is trying something new to cope with the pilot shortage: removing seats from aircraft.

SkyWest Airlines has a new subsidiary, and it’s seeking approval for it to operate Canadair Regional Jets that are missing 20 of their 50 seats, according to a filing last week with the U.S. Department of Transportation that was made public on Tuesday.

How does removing seats help SkyWest navigate the pilot shortage? Well, 30 seats is the maximum number of seats allowed under a set of aircraft operating rules called Part 135. Part 135 rules, while still stringent, are more relaxed than the current set of rules that SkyWest — and all other scheduled air carriers — operates under, known as Part 121.

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Pilots operating aircraft under Part 135 need not hold an airline transport pilot certificate. This license generally requires 1,500 flight hours to obtain and has become a hot button issue in the industry. Should SkyWest’s new subsidiary, known as SkyWest Charter, win approval, it would be allowed to hire pilots with fewer flight hours to operate CRJs with 30 seats.

In April, Republic Airways, the nation’s second-largest regional airline, filed with the Federal Aviation Administration for an exemption that would allow the company to hire pilots who graduate from its flight academy with 750 hours of experience. That exemption request remains pending.

The SkyWest operation would technically run as a public charter: On paper, the airline looks to be flying charter flights, but it’ll also publish the flight schedules and sell seats to the general public, just like a scheduled air carrier. It’s the same model that semi-private air carrier JSX uses. JSX operates in Texas with a fleet of Embraer 145s in a 1-1 configuration, because that nominally 50-seat jet must likewise be configured for 30 seats.

If approved, SkyWest Charter plans a fleet of up to 18 specially-configured CRJs.

JSX requires its new-hire pilots to hold 1,200 hours of flying time — still a significant amount of flying experience. However, this is less than the 1,500 hours required to earn a regular ATP certificate to fly Embraer Regional Jets at a Part 121 carrier like Piedmont Airlines or CommutAir.

More: Regional giant SkyWest proposes dropping up to 29 cities because of pilot shortage

Under federal regulations, pilots can earn a restricted ATP certificate at 1,250, 1,000 or 750 hours, depending on academic background or previous military experience. A 2018 study found that 32% of new-hire first officers held R-ATPs.

If approved, SkyWest intends to use its new subsidiary to bid for Essential Air Service at many of the 29 airports it initially planned to split from due to the pilot shortage. Included in SkyWest’s filing are letters of support from a number of those communities, including Hays, Kansas; Mason City, Iowa; and Meridian, Mississippi. SkyWest Charter would not be branded as United Express (like the previous service to those 29 communities was), though the proposal does mention cooperation with major airlines — likely an interline agreement that would allow for streamlined reservations, check-in and checked baggage processing. SkyWest operates scheduled flights for United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines.

screenshot flight map
SkyWest Charter proposed route map. (Screenshot from Cirium)

In a statement, SkyWest stressed that its new charter division will be an important tool for it to continue to serve small communities.

“One of SkyWest’s key missions has long been to connect small and mid-size markets to the national transportation infrastructure,” the statement said. “We have the unique agility and resources, including this charter entity, to enable continued service in small and underserved communities. We continue exploring this and various other solutions in our ongoing commitment to fulfill a critical need.”

Featured photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

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