Eyeing a recovery, some US airlines resume pilot hiring

Pilot hiring and training programmes were halted in 2020 as the pandemic forced thousands of furloughs. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - American Airlines' wholly owned regional subsidiary PSA Airlines and budget carrier Frontier Airlines plan to resume pilot hiring this year, a positive sign for an industry ravaged last year by the coronavirus pandemic but now preparing to ramp up flying.

As Covid-19 vaccines roll out, airlines are hoping for a significant improvement in domestic air travel by the summer, even if demand does not fully yet recoup pre-pandemic levels.

"As we continue to work with American Airlines to identify our flying needs this year, and in combination with recent attrition numbers for our Pilot group, we will be initiating hiring efforts for First Officer team members," Keith Stamper, vice president of PSA's air operations, said in a memo reviewed by Reuters.

A PSA spokeswoman confirmed the plans, which also include flight attendant hiring, but said: "We are declining disclosing specific hiring numbers at this time."

Ultra low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines, which is owned by private equity firm Indigo Partners, intends to restart recruiting in July, with a plan to hire about 100 pilots this year provided passenger demand recovers, a spokeswoman told Reuters.

For years, airlines were aggressively recruiting to address projected pilot shortages during an era of industry growth, but hiring and training programmes were halted last year as the pandemic forced thousands of furloughs.

PSA, which operates domestic routes for American, furloughed 723 pilots and 323 flight attendants last October when an initial Covid-19 relief plan for U.S. airlines expired. Employees were recalled last month following a fresh US$15 billion (S$19.9 billion) in government aid for the struggling industry.

Major airlines like American rely on regional carriers, which have a cheaper workforce, to operate a large share of their domestic networks.

Over time, regional pilots work their way up to the majors, which are preparing for a wave of retirements in coming years even after many pilots took early departure deals during the pandemic.

American, for example, expects over 11,149 pilots to reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 between 2021 and 2041, with 455 expected to retire this year alone, according to internal company projections updated on Monday (Jan 18).

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