Persisting pilot shortage strains growth prospects, reduces flights for regional airports like Duluth

Duluth International Airport, pictured here, has lost about 10 percent of its air service between 2019 and 2022.
Courtesy of Duluth International Airport

It’s no surprise the pandemic led large airlines to tighten budgets, limit flights, offer early buyouts to employees and avoid riskier investments. But now in 2023, legacy airlines’ decisions are limiting service and growth opportunities for regional hubs like Duluth and Rochester international airports.

Duluth International Airport has lost about 10 percent of its air service between 2019 and 2022, according to data from Rally For Airforce Services. Rochester lost more than half of its flights during that same time period. And the trend rings true around the nation.

According to Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth International Airport Authority, COVID-19 worsened existing workforce issues.

“Prior to the pandemic, in the industry, we had a number of senior pilots throughout the airline industry that were going to be set to be retired. But it was certainly exacerbated by the early retirements and buyouts that the airlines conducted during the pandemic as a cost-saving measure because virtually nobody was flying,” Werner said.

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To deal with the labor shortage and high fuel prices, 50-seat regional jets are used less frequently in favor of fewer flights with larger aircraft.

Major carriers often receive newer pilots from regional airlines, where those newcomers gain hours in hopes of getting a high-paying job flying larger aircraft, Werner explained. The other talent pipeline that’s running dry is retiring servicemembers.

“Retiring military pilots still typically have a lot of time, if you will, in their career. And so they're able to go to the airlines with a lot of experience in the military,” Werner said. But, like other industries, the military is working hard at retaining a shrinking workforce.

To mitigate the pilot shortage, Congress is considering raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from 65 to 67. The House has already approved the measure, and the Senate is expected to vote later this month. That move is getting pushback from pilots. Werner is in favor of it, but says it’s only a short-term solution.

“I think the industry is trying to be innovative of how we basically stop the loss of trained pilots; you can't train a pilot overnight,” Werner said. “The raising of the mandatory retirement age … is nothing more than a stop-gap that is meant to slow attrition.”

Werner said the move would allow policymakers and the industry more time to develop long-term solutions. He also doesn’t believe the higher age cap would come with increased risk.

“By allowing senior pilots with a lot of experience to apply for another couple of years, they already have to pass medical certifications, and so there are enough of those types of mitigating issues in there to make sure that it's safe for everyone,” he said.

Werner does believe the future of passenger service and demand for air travel is bright, and that ridership is on the rise, but regional communities are seeing a shift from pre-pandemic business travel and frequent fliers to more leisure travel.

His message?

“You need to fly local.”

Regional centers stand a better chance of growth and getting more direct flights, like a Denver-Duluth flight that’s yet to get off the ground, if travelers support them with the same approach as supporting small businesses, according to Werner.