Friday, June 30, 2017

Horizon Air cutting hundreds of flights this summer due to pilot shortage

Horizon Air — the regional airline that is part of Alaska Air Group, carrying passengers on shorter flights throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond — is cutting its flight schedule this summer because of a severe shortage of pilots for its Q400 turboprop planes.

The shortage became a crisis this past month when Horizon was forced to cancel more than 318 flights because it didn’t have enough pilots to fly all its planes.

In response, the airline is now pre-emptively canceling flights later in the summer and is weighing if it needs to pare its schedules for the rest of the year.

In an effort to reduce cancellations, it’s also sending out managers who are qualified pilots to fly the planes and offering double pay to pilots who fly extra flights.

On Thursday, Horizon Chief Executive Dave Campbell sent a memo to employees announcing that the airline is cutting multiple flights in August and is studying its fall and winter timetables “to ensure we have schedules that we can reliably operate.”

Campbell wrote that the pilot shortage, coupled with the airline’s unprecedented growth as it has added aircraft, “created a perfect storm.”

“June will go down as our ‘bump in the road’ — our moment when things got too far off track, and now, we must decide how to recover,” Campbell told employees. “We have established a war room to daily manage potential cancellations.”

About 17,000 passengers who have already booked flights between Aug. 4 and Sept. 3 that are now canceled will be automatically rebooked on Horizon or Alaska flights leaving either earlier or later that same day.

Alaska Air spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said those passengers should already have received an email informing them of the flight change.

She said Horizon has targeted cancellations for routes where the airline flies multiple times per day.

“Horizon has been strategic in making sure wherever possible that we can rebook those guests with minimal impact,” she said.

The canceled flights represent 6.2 percent of all Horizon flights in August, Egan said. As examples, she said one flight will be canceled on each of these routes:

• Seattle and Boise, now with 8 daily flights

• Seattle and Spokane, now with 15 daily flights

• Seattle and Portland, now with 26 daily flights

• Redmond and Portland, now with 5 daily flights

• Portland and Sacramento, California, now with 3 or 4 daily flights.

Horizon employs almost 3,700 people and serves 45 cities in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, as well as Alberta and British Columbia.

Egan said it’s been hit by a pilot shortage that “the entire regional airline industry faces.”

When Indianapolis-based regional carrier Republic Airways declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, it attributed its financial troubles largely to canceled flights caused by the shortage of qualified pilots.
“Premium pay” offer

To address the problem at Horizon, Campbell said in his memo that in addition to the schedule cuts, the airline is “offering 200 percent premium pay” to pilots who fly extra flights beyond their normal schedule.

Horizon’s flight-operations team is also increasing from 19 to 34 the number of supervising pilots — known as “check airmen.” This should speed up the introduction of new pilots, who must have such a supervisor alongside them in the flight deck as they embark on flying a new aircraft type.

And the airline has boosted its recruiting staff from two to six and is working with aviation schools on recruitment, Campbell said.

The offer of double pay for the overtime flights has created a surprising conflict with the pilots union, Teamsters Local 1224.

Horizon’s management and the Teamsters agreed in April on a new contract that specifies that overtime should be paid at 150 percent, not 200 percent.

In a letter to Horizon pilots last week, the union leadership — counterintuitively — objected to the company paying more than the contract stipulates and urged the pilots not to accept what it called a “200 percent bribe” to fly extra flights.

Greg Unterseher, director of representation for Teamsters Local 1224, said in an interview that the union objects to the company unilaterally amending the terms of the contract.

It doesn’t want management paying a handsome bonus now just to get through the crisis, then taking it away later.

“It’s not going to solve the issue,” said Unterseher. “They messed up on their staffing. They still don’t have the people to fly the airplanes.”

He said one exacerbating factor for Horizon is that young pilots coming into the industry want to further their careers by flying jets rather than turboprop planes like the Q400s that make up the vast majority of Horizon’s fleet.

Unterseher said he had a positive meeting Thursday with Campbell and that “we’re trying to figure out ways to move forward.”

In an interview Thursday, Joe Sprague, Alaska Air’s senior vice president of external affairs, rejected criticism in the union letter that management has not been proactive in addressing the pilot shortage.

He said the new contract with the Teamsters includes provisions aimed squarely at increasing recruitment.
Pilot bonuses

The airline is offering hiring bonuses of up to $20,000 for Q400 pilots to join the company — $15,000 at completion of two months of training and $5,000 more after a year of service.

And starting pay has been increased from $30 an hour to $40 an hour, from the first day of training.

Sprague said an encouraging sign is that Horizon’s new-hire pilot classes — which provide training on the planes they’ll fly — are full for June and July, with 30 trainees passing through each of those months.

But he said it will take time for the new recruitment efforts included in the newly ratified pilot contract to bear fruit.

So the selective cancellations now planned are temporary, he said, “while we build the staffing back up to where we think it needs to be.”

Though Campbell’s memo makes clear that June was a bad month for cancellations and lays out the plan for August, it only glancingly addresses what’s ahead in July, a very busy holiday month.

It’s clear that cancellations will mount in the month ahead and Campbell asks employees to deal kindly with affected passengers.

“As we move into July, let’s stick to what we do best,” Campbell told employees. “Kindness to our guests and to each other will always make us shine.”

(Dominic Gates - The Seattle Times)

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