SkyWest battles pilot shortage by shifting dozens of nonstop flights into 1-stops

Mar 9, 2022

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The nation’s largest operator of Essential Air Service routes is making some changes because of the pilot shortage.

SkyWest Airlines, which is also the nation’s largest regional airline, is changing the service pattern to 18 of the 49 EAS cities it currently services. Instead of operating as nonstops, the affected cities will now be served in multi-stop itineraries instead of solely with nonstop flights.

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Take SkyWest’s service to Fort Dodge, Iowa, for example. That route is currently served as a nonstop roundtrip from United’s hub at Chicago O’Hare (ORD). But, starting next month, it will morph into a multi-stop service that also incorporates SkyWest’s EAS route to Mason City. One daily round trip, UA5015, will see one of SkyWest’s 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet 200s fly from Chicago to Fort Dodge, then to Mason City, then back to Chicago. Another daily round trip, UA5017, flies in the opposite direction from Chicago to Mason City, then to Fort Dodge, then back to Chicago.

Each of these stops is scheduled for 35 minutes.

It’s a similar pattern elsewhere. There are also some cities, such as Clarksburg, West Virginia, that will receive at least one non-stop out-and-back flight a day, despite the change, in addition to having its other nonstop routes turn into multi-stop itineraries.

SkyWest’s shift to multiple-stop service will affect the following markets, which are all branded as United Express:

  • Decatur, Illinois (DEC)
  • Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (TBN)
  • Laurel, Mississippi (PIB)
  • Meridian, Mississippi (MEI)
  • Clarksburg, West Virginia (CKB)
  • Johnstown, Pennsylvania (JST)
  • Dodge City, Kansas (DDC)
  • Liberal, Kansas (LBL)
  • North Platte, Nebraska (LBF)
  • Scottsbluff, Nebraska (BFF)
  • Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia (LWB)
  • Shenandoah Valley, Virginia (SHD)
  • Mason City, Iowa (MCW)
  • Fort Dodge, Iowa (FOD)
  • Hays, Kansas (HYS)
  • Salina, Kansas (SLN)
  • Cape Girardeau, Missouri (CGI)
  • Paducah, Kentucky (PAH)

More: How a pilot shortage could leave travelers with higher fares and fewer options

SkyWest’s new EAS service pattern. (Screenshot courtesy of Cirium)

These  changes are the latest tweaks by SkyWest to its EAS flying. Earlier this year, the airline filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation to end its flying between United’s hub at Washington Dulles (IAD) and two cities in New York: Plattsburgh (PBG) and Ogdensburg (OGS).

A spokesperson for SkyWest told TPG that “we’ve modified some schedules to maximize the service we’re able to continue to provide with our current staffing resources.” The spokesperson said that the airline did not need to file these changes with the DOT because the airline is maintaining the same number of round trips it is contracted for.

EAS is the federal government’s program that subsidizes air service to small communities where service might not otherwise be viable. Contracts are bid on by different carriers and awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers the EAS program.

In the case of SkyWest, the DOT might want to take a look at the changes, said industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, the president of Atmosphere Research.

“For travelers who live in the affected cities or are visiting the cities whose service is being changed, it will be important to understand whether they continue to have the same easy access to United’s network and schedules at its various hubs,” Harteveldt told TPG in an interview.

More: Pilot shortages, small city cuts and 5G: Meet the woman trying to fix the regional airline industry’s woes

This move by SkyWest is just the latest inconvenience that travelers in small communities are facing due to the pilot shortage. Regional routes — particularly those belonging to United — have been cut extensively in the past six months as regional airlines struggle to replace pilots who are leaving in large numbers to go work for major airlines. While EAS routes can’t be cut as easily as non-EAS routes, due to the DOT’s involvement, the industry fears the general picture will get worse, said Faye Malarkey Black, the Regional Airline Association’s president.

“I think no matter what we do right now, more communities are going to lose air service,” Black told TPG in an interview last month. “The time to fix the pilot shortage was four or five years ago. At this point, we are trying to correct a problem.”

Featured photo by Shutterstock.

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