National Pilot Shortage Means Fewer Flights In and Out of Billings

May 12, 2022

May 11—It's getting harder to get on a flight out of Billings.

A national shortage of commercial pilots has left airlines running fewer flights, which has left Billings with fewer departures. Monthly, the Billings airport has on average 15,000 fewer seats available for flyers than it did last year.

For example, last summer Alaska Airlines ran four Seattle flights out of Billings and two Portland flights weekly. This year, Alaska is only offering two Billings-to-Seattle flights, said Kevin Ploehn, director of Billings Logan International Airport.

When Ploehn pushed on the airline to schedule at least one more flight, he was told Billings was lucky to have the two Seattle flights.

"Some of (the national carriers) are just parking planes because they don't have the staff," Ploehn said.

Fewer planes touching down in Billings means the flights that do arrive and depart are packed, which is a change from last year, when planes were flying on average roughly three-quarters full.

Planes leaving Billings have been pretty full, Ploehn said. He expects that to intensify as the summer travel season goes into full swing, and with fewer seats available it means airlines can "just about charge what they want."

A couple factors feed into the pilot shortage, he said. Federal regulations require pilots to retire from commercial airline service at 65 and training new pilots is both expensive and time intensive.

The pandemic played a role. COVID-19 shutdowns accelerated early retirements for pilots and slowed training for new recruits.

Adding to the bottleneck is that many of the pilots now reaching retirement age came up through military service in the 1970s and 1980s. These days the military produces far fewer pilots than it did in the late 20th century.

"We've known this has been coming for a while," Ploehn said. "It's going to take a couple years to come out of it."

In the meantime, national carriers are heavily recruiting pilots from smaller, regional carriers — like Cape Air in Billings — which leaves the smaller carriers with their own pilot shortage, he said.

And that puts air service in Billings in a tough spot. The airport is juggling the final stages of its massive facilities remodel, more people are wanting to travel as the pandemic recedes and high gas prices are complicating travel just as a pilot shortage reduces the number of flights into Billings.

"Just when everyone wanted to get back in the saddle," he said with a laugh. "We'll manage it."


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