On the back of a rebound in travel demand, Dallas-based American Airlines is to resume hiring pilots. Last year, American’s pilot numbers shrunk as the airline grappled with a fall in demand. Now, as the airline prepares for a busy summer, American Airlines finds itself facing a pilot shortage.
In a memo to pilots forwarded to Simple Flying, Captain Chip Long, Vice President of Operations at American Airlines, said 300 pilot hires would occur this year and double that number in 2022. In addition, recalled pilots would all be returned to flying status by the end of the northern summer.
“We intend to resume pilot hiring this fall,” said Captain Long. “The return to flying of so many of our pilots and the addition of hundreds more, the resumption of many old routes, and the introduction of new destinations are hopeful signs.”
Rebound in demand takes American Airlines by surprise
The surge in demand has taken American Airlines and its competitors by surprise. As recently as January, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker was tempering expectations of a swift recovery. When announcing the 2020 calendar results for American Airlines, Mr Parker said he didn’t know when passenger demand will recover. But within weeks, passenger demand swiftly accelerated and far faster than anticipated.
While its international flying remains subdued and substantially below 2019 levels, American Airlines expects to be flying around 90% of its 2019 domestic schedule this upcoming summer.
That’s caught American Airlines and its competitor airlines on the hop. Last year, around 1,000 American Airlines pilots retired early. A further 1,600 were furloughed. Now, American Airlines is finding itself with a potential shortage of pilots because it didn’t anticipate or plan for such a swift recovery.
In response, American Airlines has got creative. For example, many of its widebody planes that operate long-haul international routes and the pilots that fly them now ply transcontinental domestic routes. It’s a case of American Airlines deploying its resources where the demand is.
An industry-wide pilot shortage looms
Captain Dennis Tajer, Communications Chairman at the Allied Pilots Association, a union representing American Airlines pilots, is pleased American Airlines plans to resume pilot hires. He told Simple Flying the rebound in demand was a great opportunity for the airline.
But he says a potential shortage of pilots in the short term may present American Airlines with a challenge. There’s a process to returning pilots to flying status. That may include retraining and bring certifications up to date. It’s not something that can be done overnight. American Airlines may not be able to return pilots to flying status at a pace sufficient to meet the demand for pilots.
Captain Tajer flags the potential of a pilot shortage across the entire industry in the short to medium term. An aging workforce approaching the mandatory pilot retirement age of 65 and a heavy reliance on early retirement offers by US airlines to cut costs in 2020 suggests in a year or two when the industry is getting back to normal, there could be a substantial pilot shortage.
As problems go, for pilots, it is a better problem than 12 months ago when mass unemployment loomed. For American Airlines management, it’s an issue of resources, logistics, and agility. Captain Long said resuming pilot hires was a win not just for pilots but also for the whole airline.
“Recruiting, hiring, and training a diverse group of professional aviators is our continued goal and will play an essential part in ensuring the success of our airline for years to come.”