Pilot shortage curtails North Platte passenger flights

The airline that serves North Platte passengers has been struggling for months to find enough pilots. On Thursday, the airline announced their intention to stop serving North Platte, Kearney and Scottsbluff as of June 10.

The airline, Skywest, also plans to stop serving 25 other communities from North Dakota to Texas and other states. SkyWest said it would prefer to continue serving these cities, but the pilot staffing challenges across the airline industry preclude them from doing so.

Skywest is under a contract with Lee Bird Field in North Platte. The airline will be held to the terms of the contract, North Platte Regional Airport Manager Sam Seafeld said. The US Department of Transportation, oversees their service.

Skywest has told airport management that the published schedule of flights will not change at least through April. Two flights are scheduled on most days, although a few days will have just one flight. Also, a flight from North Platte is now stopping in Scottsbluff instead of going nonstop to Denver.

Seafeld said the airline’s month-to-month schedule has consistently changed since the second quarter of 2020. He could not comment on the foreseeable flight schedule for May, June and beyond.

Reservations in May are available through the North Platte Regional Airport website.

SkyWest has commented that their pilots are being hired by other airlines faster than they are able to replace them, Seafeld told the Bulletin

Otherwise, traffic continues to generally be as good as can be expected at the North Platte airport.

Flights were restricted for several months during the pandemic, and some pilots were encouraged to take early retirement in the summer of 2020.

When pandemic concerns eased about a year after the fears began, the number of passengers coming and going at Lee Bird Field nearly returned to previous levels. Those levels previously hit all-time record highs in 2019 and early 2020, before COVID-19.

In the recent February, the last monthly total available, the number of “enplanements” reached 1,031, some fewer than 1,168 in February 2019, but nearly double the total of 551 a year ago.

Seafeld said the pilot shortage has been an ongoing issue for several years due to “baby boomer” retirements and greatly increased regulations for training for co-pilots.

A Congressional requirement in 2013 increased the amount of flight time and ground training that is required of certified pilots, The newer federal requirements said, basically, that a copilot has to have the same amount of flight hours (1,500), qualifications and certifications as a pilot. So, co-pilots can no longer learn on the job.

By comparison, European pilots need only have 300 flight hours, according to the Aero Guard Flight Training Center.

“The root of the problem is that it costs over $100,000 and takes five or more years to obtain all the training to become eligible to fly for a major airline,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in late January. “A commercial pilot’s journey is technically complex, building hours and obtaining certificates in a process that is difficult to navigate without experienced support.”

United and other airlines are opening their own pilot training academies, offering hefty scholarships and mentoring programs, while continuing to lobby Congress to decrease the stringent requirements. Kirby said major airline pilots can earn $350,000 a year, plus benefits, once they get through all the training.

A shortage of more than 12,000 pilots is predicted by 2023 — 13% of total demand, Skywest told news week magazine Thursday when the magazine contacted them about cuts in service to cities like North Platte.

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