Monday Insight – October 31, 2022

The Effects of The Pilot Shortage: Part Real.
For Small Communities, A Lot Mirage.

It’s the staple headline in just about every story regarding loss of scheduled flights at a local small airport.

“Pilot shortage blamed for cancellation of air service.”

Or something like that. And it is in many cases completely misleading, because it is only one symptom of the raw, unescapable economics of an evolving air transportation system that are changing where connective network flights can be supported.

Addressing The Symptom. Ignoring The Causes. The inaccurate implication is that if we can train more pilots, these small local community airports (or, in the cases of not so small metro-peripheral communities, like Toledo or Youngstown) will see scheduled service come back with a vengeance.

There are intellectual witch doctors selling this line to many small communities, promising that with patience and a bunch more analyses, studies and speed-date meetings, all will be air service wonderful, by and by.

It won’t.

The issue of pilots is just one of the factors of entirely new and evolving air transportation economics affecting air service at the local airports in rural, small, and metro-peripheral communities.

It’s A Lot Deeper Than Staffing Cockpits. In clear fact, the “pilot shortage” for this sector of air travel is one result of much more fundamental factors, not the least of which are deteriorating economics of smaller airliners (a trend that’s been in motion since code-sharing started to eliminate independent regional airlines three decades ago.) This is also due to shifts in alternative competitive travel options for consumers.

The factors driving air service change are different at every community. But right at the starting gate, the truth is that the costs of air service in many instances are exceeding the revenues that can be generated in many route applications. That’s not a pilot shortage issue.

The travails of the decline in 50-seat jet economics, combined with much higher labor costs (including pilot compensation) are continuing to see the air service tide recede from marginal market flying. And marginal is more than just small communities. It’s also in play in a lot of hub feed markets at larger airports, too.

In a real sense, what we have is an “revenue viability shortage” that in turn is making applications of some resources, including pilots, a no-go item for markets where the traffic horsepower isn’t increasing along with costs of operation.

This is not a drill. This is not a situation that is reversable. Regionalization of air service access – connective air service access – is a continuing trend that is the result of airline industry realities.

The ULCC Placebo. One of the canards and misconceptions that must be stomped out is the belief that without scheduled flights at the local airport, the community will die economically.

That is, on its face, a complete falsehood. It’s even more intellectually disgusting when it’s accessorized with the nonsense that just getting a ULCC will be sufficient to rectify the situation.

ULCCs and network airlines are fundamentally different businesses. The main common factor is that both use airliners.

ULCC flights are great, but they represent a completely different product, one that’s galaxies away from connective air service access. Their product is in most cases offering low-fare access to vacation destinations, in the effort to divert and capture local discretionary spend.

In no cases, do these companies offer connectivity to the rest of the nation. That is not their business, and any entity that purports to represent that three weekly flights to Sanford is the equivalent of network carrier access, or that it will attract local business investment, is selling dangerous and dishonest snake-oil.

Economic Growth Is The Future. With Or Without Scheduled Flights. Today, demographics and business migration trends are pointing well for small communities in the USA. Changes in logistics and in communication channels are leveling the playing field for small communities to attract new business, and not having air service isn’t a deal killer to get that 50-job business to move in from Chicago.

Local airports are a key factor in this new reality – or can be, if they want to. Dust off that ALP and take a look through the lens of advantages compared to places in the nation where things are, well, descending into social fantasy land. Businesses and population want out.

Interested in moving to the future level of airport economic development? Send us an email.

Let your competition wallow on, focused on air service programs aimed at recovering the 1980s.

Instead, we’ll focus on the new economics of the 21st century.