FORT WORTH, Texas — Summer travel has taken off, but the airline industry is struggling to keep up.
A severe pilot shortage in the U.S. is contributing to flight delays, cancellations, and travel headaches.
On Tuesday, more than 1,300 Southwest Airlines pilots stood in a picket line at Dallas Love Field Airport.
During the protest, they said they’re understaffed and overworked.
On Wednesday, President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Casey Murray told WFAA in his 30 years as a commercial airline pilot, he has never witnessed an airline pilot shortage such as this one.
“We’re not happy with where we’ve been this last year, and we’re not happy with where we see this summer going,” Murray said. “A lot of what we’ve seen are these reassignments of pilots, that’s where the delays are coming from. That’s what’s causing a lot of the problems and fatigue on the pilot side,” Murray said.
Murray and those who picketed called for better scheduling, increased pay and benefits.
"Our pilots have lost 20,000 days off this past year, that equates to 50 years of involuntarily being made to work, and that's a struggle." Murray said. "We attribute it to Southwest's inability to connect pilots with airplanes, and that creates inefficiencies."
Southwest Airlines, which is based in Dallas, ramped up its hiring of pilots last year to replace those who accepted buyouts offered in 2020, when air travel took a nosedive due to the pandemic.
Murray said a commercial airline pilot shortage has been forecast for years.
“It is really coming to fruition in the next few months and years,” Murray said. “It’s going to be a challenge hiring pilots.
An aging workforce has a lot to do with the shortage. According to Regional Airline Association, roughly a third of the airline-qualified pilots in the U.S. are between the ages of 51 and 59, while 13% of the country’s airline pilots will reach retirement age within the next five years.
Over at Tarrant County College’s Northwest Campus in Fort Worth, an aviation program is part of the solution.
Clint Grant, TCC’s Dean of Business, Technology and Transportation is training the next generation of pilots.
“The industry got behind, and so it’s really critical,” Grant said.
Currently, the Erma C. Johnson Hadley Northwest Center of Excellence for Aviation Transportation and Logistics has 300 students enrolled in its airline maintenance program. Around 150 students are undergoing the school’s flight program, which is less than 10 years old. The flight program launched in 2014 with only about a dozen students, Grant said.
“We have more demand than we have seats,” Grant said.
Grant understands the need for commercial airline pilots is dire. Flyers are already beginning to feel the impact that a lack of pilots can have on travel plans.
This week, American Airlines announced, beginning Sept. 2021, it’ll suspend services to Ithaca, N.Y., Islip, N.Y., Toledo, Ohio, and Dubuque, Iowa. The airline cited pilot shortages.
“It’s a challenging time for the Southwest Airlines pilots, and we’ve always risen to that challenge,” Murray said.