Contour Airlines has found an innovative way to overcome pilot shortages so it can expand its route network to smaller markets.
Now, mega-regional carrier SkyWest hopes to emulate that approach to continue serving many of the 29 federally subsidized Essential Air Service (EAS) routes it operates in conjunction with United Airlines, which it previously l intention to leave.
But the solution, which is to fly as a public charter operator rather than a certified scheduled airline, has drawn objections from the powerful union ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association).
The FAA administers the EAS program to help connect small communities to the commercial aviation network. The program subsidizes routes that airlines would otherwise avoid because they are not profitable enough.
Contour is expanding into EAS markets even as the shortage of U.S. pilots has prompted United, Delta and American, in combination with regional airline partners like SkyWest, to accelerate plans to withdraw flights in smaller communities.
For example, Contour began offering EAS service to Philadelphia from Plattsburgh and Ogdensburg, NY on July 1, replacing the United Express service that SkyWest had previously operated from those communities to Washington Dulles. Through an interline agreement with American, Contour customers can then continue to destinations beyond Philadelphia.
These services bring to 10 the number of federally subsidized routes that Contour flies over. All the connections are operated on planes equipped with 30 seats, ie the maximum number authorized for the airlines benefiting from approval as a public charter operator.
Contour is also in the running for seven other EAS contracts, CEO Matt Chaifetz said. If awarded, the carrier would offer nearly triple the six subsidized services for small communities it offered as recently as September.
But by operating under common charter carrier certification, Contour co-pilots are not required to have 1,500 flight hours, as required by airlines operating as a scheduled carrier under FAA rules. Instead, pilots can start with as little as 250 hours, although Chaifetz said most Contour first officers start with between 500 and 800 hours of flight experience. Captains of public charter flights must always have at least 1,500 hours in the cockpit.
In addition, the mandatory retirement age of 65, to which pilots working for traditional airlines are subject, does not apply to public charters.
The ability to take advantage of a pool of pilots who can’t fly for scheduled carriers “really only comes down to the laws of supply and demand,” Chaifetz said.
SkyWest wants to create a charter subsidiary
SkyWest is clearly paying attention.
Last February, the carrier requested permission to withdraw from 29 EAS routes it operates under the United Express livery. With US regional airlines facing severe pilot shortages, the move was apparently intended to allow SkyWest to focus on its more lucrative routes in codeshare with United.
But in June, SkyWest sought federal approval for a subsidiary called SkyWest Charter to operate as a public charter. SkyWest proposes to lend 18 aircraft to the subsidiary for the operation of 25 routes by next April.
The carrier would remove 20 seats from these Bombardier CRJ200 aircraft, which are currently configured with 50 seats, to meet public charter requirements. Among these 25 proposed routes are 18 EAS communities that SkyWest wanted to leave.
SkyWest did not respond to a request for this story. But airline industry consultant Bob Mann of RW Mann & Co. said he did not believe the regional carrier would be able to operate public charter routes under the brand name of major carriers, as do currently all SkyWest flights. Instead, the flights should be sold under the SkyWest brand.
Still, Mann said that by launching public charter services, SkyWest could solve two problems: easing its own recruiting challenges and providing a more lucrative path for aspiring pilots to reach the crucial 1,500-hour threshold.
“SkyWest is a quality operator. They’ve done a good job for decades in a tough business,” Mann said. “I think they’re looking for a creative way to solve a problem they have while allowing customers to use their service in tough markets.”
ALPA, however, has told DOT that it opposes the plan, largely because it would escape the 1,500 hour rule.
“SkyWest obviously believes it can solve its personnel issues by reducing the level of security in its cockpits through a loophole,” ALPA wrote in a recent regulatory filing with the DOT.
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