As millions of Americans prepare for a summer of vacation flights, Ben Wallander slams the books and the simulator shut.
Thousands of pilots at Delta and American lost their active status sometime in the past year, which expires after 90 days without a flight as the coronavirus pandemic slowed air traffic and brought airlines to their knees.
However, a long weekend on US Memorial Day starting Friday is expected to usher in a projected spike in summer vacation travel that will test the airlines’ ability to make a long-awaited comeback.
While airlines have already retrained many of their pilots, the travel revival has forced Delta and American to seek more simulators and flight instructors to speed up training and clear up traffic jams, people with knowledge of the matter said.
Both airlines are beneficiaries of three $ 54 billion worth of COVID-19 relief packages, mostly in the form of free cash that the industry argued was necessary to keep workers like pilots on hand with costly training requirements.
Analysts warn that failure to ensure a smooth travel recovery could result in flight cancellations and delays in generating the cash needed to repay pandemic debt.
“It’s quite a puzzle,” said McKinsey aviation advisor Vik Krishnan about the logistics of pilot training, comparing it to a game of Tetris.
Delta and American must train pilots who have flown with fleets that have been decommissioned due to the pandemic, as well as those who fill vacancies on various types of aircraft after being taken over by colleagues, in addition to the annual training requirements.
“Our pilot training has stayed on track with our planned deployment plans and will continue to do so,” said Delta spokesman Anthony Black.
The American spokeswoman Sarah Jantz said: “We have the training capacities ready and are able to cope with the expected increase in aviation.”
BOOM AND BUST
Before the coronavirus crisis, global air traffic grew by a record 5% per year, requiring 804,000 pilots over the next 20 years, based on Boeing (PROHIBITION) Estimates.
However, volatility in the availability of pilots has plagued the aviation industry, moving from global bottlenecks prior to COVID-19 to unemployment or vacation programs during the pandemic and now renewed concerns about bottlenecks in the major U.S. market.
The problem snowballed during the industry’s worst crisis ever, creating yet another bottleneck.
Delta has around 12,600 pilots and has posted 1,600 internal positions for captain and first mate, memos show.
Wallander, an Airbus (AIR.PA) The A220 pilot was recalled by Delta in March, but will not be trained until June.
He told Reuters that he decided to stick with the A220 upon returning to the cockpit as it means he “doesn’t have to go through a long training course”.
Courses can last from days to weeks depending on how long the pilots have been away and whether they are improving their position or changing aircraft types.
All pilots are required to spend time in simulators, of which airlines have a limited number, followed by flights alongside a training captain who signs off on their return.
However, many of these “check” pilots have to be trained on different types of aircraft after changing fleets or have retired, which leaves a knowledge and resource gap.
“All of this cascades into training,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 pilots at American.
United Airlines (UAL.O), the other major U.S. international airline, reached an agreement with its pilots union that helped nearly 12,000 maintain active flight status during the pandemic.
Among the efforts to promote training, American rents simulators owned by Canada’s CAE (CAE.TO) at its home base in Texas, while Delta is running more training beyond its Atlanta base and adjusting briefings around simulator time to get about 25% more sessions per day, sources said.
American plans to fly around 90% of its pre-pandemic domestic flight schedule this summer. Delta is also increasing flights and expects its planes to be around 90% busy this weekend.
“We hit the brakes very quickly and we’re coming back even faster,” said Chris Riggins, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta.
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