United Airlines Chief Warns of Potential Pilot Shortage

June 21, 2021 Updated: June 21, 2021

United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said on June 20 that the United States could face a potential pilot shortage, with his remarks coming as competitor American Airlines announced that it’s canceling hundreds of flights in July because of a staffing crunch.

In an interview with “Axios on HBO,” Kirby said the possible pilot shortage is being driven by the fact that the military isn’t producing as many pilots as it did in the past.

“The military produces far fewer pilots today than they did … in the Cold War era,” Kirby told the outlet.

In response to that trend, Kirby said United had launched the Aviate Academy, where the company plans to train a new generation of pilots.

American Airlines announced on June 20 that it would cancel about 1 percent of its flights in July to ensure that some of the company’s busier hubs are adequately staffed amid a labor shortage and an uptick in demand for air travel. The carrier said the move would bring additional resilience and certainty to its summer operations.

“(We) feel these schedule adjustments will help ensure we can take good care of our customers and team members and minimize surprises at the airport,” the company said in a statement.

The airline said its cancellations are focused on affecting the smallest number of customers “by adjusting flights in markets where we have multiple options for re-accommodation.”

American Airlines
American Airlines passenger planes crowd a runway, at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Okla., on March 23, 2020. (Nick Oxford/Reuters, File Photo)

Airlines and other transportation operators have seen a quick ramp-up in demand as COVID-19 vaccination rates have increased in the United States, and travel restrictions have been lifted in recent weeks.

According to data from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), nearly 50 million airport passengers were registered in May, up by 19 percent from April. So far in June, the TSA has registered nearly 35 million air passengers.

American Airlines said the incredibly quick ramp-up of customer demand also came at a time when bad weather caused multi-hour delays over the past few weeks, disrupting flight and crew work hours. The company said some of its vendors also were struggling with labor shortages, impacting the airline’s operations.

Meanwhile, an April report from consulting firm Oliver Wyman (pdf) predicted that leisure travel demand in the United States would push the domestic airline industry to a post-pandemic recovery by early 2022.

“A resurgence in the US aviation market will be the primary reason for the improved outlook,” the report’s authors wrote. “We now expect U.S. air travel demand to recover to 2019 levels by early 2022, months ahead of our fall predictions, based on widespread and expedited availability of vaccines.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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