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

Mar 11, 2022

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SkyWest Airlines wants to end most of its Essential Air Service flying by June 10.

The nation’s largest regional airline said in a filing with the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday that staffing pressures due to pilot shortages were too great for it to continue to operate service to 29 communities. Of the 29 communities, 28 could lose service completely. The St. George, Utah-based airline currently operates 49 EAS routes and is already in the process of ending service to two of them.

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 DOT, which administers the EAS program.

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SkyWest issued a statement saying it will do what it can to accommodate passengers and staff at the affected airports. The airline also left open the door to return to these communities if the situation changed:

As a result of an ongoing pilot staffing imbalance across the industry, SkyWest expects to discontinue service in several markets beginning this summer. SkyWest has long been a supporter of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program and the critical need it fills in our national transportation infrastructure. We appreciate our partnerships and the support of these communities, and we are committed to delivering a solid, reliable product to each of them through this transition. Our ground staff at these locations will be offered various options, including transfers within the company. Customers booked beyond the service date will be contacted to make alternate arrangements.

We are eager to work with officials toward solutions that would enable us to reconnect these communities to the National Air Transportation System in the future, and we are committed to remaining flexible and adjusting our plans if the situation improves more quickly than currently expected.

SkyWest’s proposal means that about of quarter of the EAS communities in the lower 48 states could soon be without an EAS operator. The DOT will now put these EAS contracts back out to bid. The department also has the right to order SkyWest to continue service until it finds a new operator. It exercised that right for two EAS communities in New York that SkyWest filed to end service to earlier this year — Plattsburgh (PBG) and Ogdensburg (OGS).

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

SkyWest intends to end service to these 29 cities, all of which have service marketed as United Express that connect with United hubs in Denver (DEN), Chicago (ORD), Washington, D.C. (IAD) and Houston (IAH).

  • Alamosa, Colorado (ALS)
  • Pueblo, Colorado (PUB)
  • Fort Dodge, Iowa (FOD)
  • Mason City, Iowa (MCW)
  • Sioux City, Iowa (SUX)
  • Dodge City, Kansas (DDC)
  • Hays, Kansas (HYS)
  • Liberal, Kansas (LBL)
  • Salina, Kansas (SLN)
  • Paducah, Kentucky (PAH)
  • Decatur, Illinois (DEC)
  • Houghton, Michigan (CMX)
  • Muskegon, Michigan (MKG)
  • Cape Girardeau, Missouri (CGI)
  • Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (TBN)
  • Joplin, Missouri (JLN)
  • Meridian, Mississippi (MEI)
  • Hattiesburg, Mississippi (PIB)
  • Devils Lake, North Dakota (DVL)
  • Jamestown, North Dakota (JMS)
  • Kearney, Nebraska (EAR)
  • North Platte, Nebraska (LBF)
  • Scottsbluff, Nebraska (BFF)
  • Johnstown, Pennsylvania (JST)
  • Victoria, Texas (VCT)
  • Shenandoah, Virginia (SHD)
  • Eau Claire, Wisconsin (EAU)
  • Clarksburg, West Virginia (CKB)
  • Lewisburg, West Virginia (LWB)
SkyWest’s proposed EAS cuts. (Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper)

The airline operates service to all of these cities using 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet 200s, which are among the largest planes currently operating EAS service in the lower 48 states. Many communities rely on service from nine-seat turboprops, and it’s likely those — barring a stay from the DOT — will be what replaces SkyWest in some of these communities. Those nine-seat operations are allowed to hire pilots with a fraction of the hours that SkyWest pilots are required to have, allowing operators to tap into an expanded pool of eligible pilots.

Prior to June 10, some of these cities will see their nonstop service be converted to one-stop tag or triangle routes.

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

SkyWest’s move is the latest example of how small communities are shouldering much of the burden as regional airlines struggle to fill their ranks with pilots. In some cases, larger regionals like SkyWest are losing hundreds of pilots a month to go to the major airlines, which saw a massive wave of retirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regional routes — particularly those belonging to United — have been cut extensively in the past six months. The regional airline 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 Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

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