Shortage of pilots is impacting regional airlines like Allegiant

The recent cancellation of Alle- giant Air flights to Youngstown has focused attention on the regional airline’s operational troubles and has raised concerns about future disruptions.

Mahoning Valley residents were up in arms recently when Allegiant delayed a flight from Punta Gorda, Fla., to Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. The airline said low cloud cover prevented aircraft and crews from reaching the airport. The rescheduled flight the next day was then canceled because of “operational” issues.

A company spokeswoman denied that the issues included a pilot shortage caused by a federal certification backlog. However, she did acknowledge that the backlog has disrupted some of Allegiant’s planned services. The airline began training pilots last year to fly Airbus planes, which Allegiant is introducing into its fleet.

But the 2013 shutdown of the federal government stalled the training and certification process, leaving a shortage of pilots at the airline’s disposal.

Although such talk is not likely to appease passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted, the cockpit-crew crisis is real. Indeed, it is becoming a national problem.

Last Sunday, The Vindicator published a Philadelphia Inquirer story under the headline, “Airlines facing shortage of pilots.”

The opening paragraph of the story said it all: “A storm is brewing in the cockpit of U.S. airlines: a pilot shortage.”

The piece revealed that throngs of senior pilots will be retiring at the same time as new federal pilot-rest rules and tougher qualification standards require new pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience. That’s up from 250.

“Although job prospects for commercial pilots are bright, and regional airlines are scooping up newly minted aviators with signing bonuses, fewer young people are choosing aviation careers,” the story said.

One of the reasons for the declining number of prospective pilots is the cost of training and low entry-level pay, which is $20,000 to $25,000 a year.

The story quoted a 17-year-old flier with a private pilot’s license as saying his education and flight training will be $250,000 before he can sit in the first officer’s seat of a regional airline. It’s with the regional carriers that commercial pilots usually start to build experience.

For regions like the Mahoning Valley that are trying to attract regional airlines, this crisis comes at an inopportune time.

With Allegiant now in its eighth year of serving the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, the Valley has embraced the airline. The increase in passenger loads has resulted in the expansion of service to several airports in Florida.

There also has been talk about service to Las Vegas.

But the pilot shortage could put a damper on the airline’s plans.

Support for Allegiant

It’s not clear what the Valley can do except to continue to support Allegiant and for passengers to understand that it isn’t only with the regional carriers that service disruptions occur.

Indeed, United Airlines’ decision to abandon its Cleveland hub has raised hopes that the carrier would consider service to Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

“When you hear news about the Cleveland hub closure, although it’s not good for the city of Cleveland — losing an airline hub has a lot of negative connotations — it creates opportunities for the Mahoning Valley that we didn’t have before,” said Tom Reich, president of Air Service Partners of Alexandria, Va.

Reich is an aviation consultant to the Youngstown-Warren airport

United Airlines announced this month that Cleveland would no longer be a hub airport, meaning United would no longer use it to connect passengers to airports around the world and would reduce its flights from 199 to 72 by June.

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