MORGANTOWN — Nearly a decade ago, airline industry prognosticators said a looming pilot shortage hastened by a wave of retirements, dramatic increases in training requirements and a reduction in military-trained aviators would spell doom for small commuter airlines.
Then COVID-19 poured jet fuel on that fire.
“When COVID happened a lot of the major airlines gave their pilots early retirement buyouts. So, when travel came roaring back in 2022, the majors all the sudden looked at the smaller airlines like us as a ready source of pilots,” Southern Airways Express Chief Commercial Officer Mark Cestari said.
Large carriers used incentives like six-figure sign-on bonuses to restock their ranks of available pilots, resulting in grounded aircraft and canceled flights at small airports across the country.
“We’re kind of a farm team for the big airlines and they drastically increased their need for pilots and basically raided the smaller airlines with that,” Cestari said.
Southern Airways is the essential air service carrier for the Morgantown Municipal Airport.
Cestari said the pilot shortage has impacted service in and out of Morgantown. He said the airline has attempted to pre-cancel flights when possible but has had last-minute disruptions as well.
Morgantown Municipal Airport Director Jonathon Vrabel explained all of Southern’s markets are seeing heavily-delayed flights or cancellations daily.
“In Morgantown, we have had one flight cancelled per day,” Vrabel said. “Southern is in the process of making a schedule change to eliminate one flight in the schedule to accommodate the disruption until the pilot issue is resolved.”
While it remains to be seen how long that will take, Cestari said the carrier doesn’t plan to sit back and wait it out.
“Southern has been very proactive in terms of addressing this. So much so that we have invested in our own flight simulator training machine that is located in DuBois, Pa.,” Cestari explained, noting the airline is currently bringing new pilots online at a rate of one per day.
He went on to say that while the shortage was causing competitors to shrink out of some markets, Southern expanded into 10 new cities in 2022.
“I can tell you I think the situation will be drastically improved going forward. Just how perfect we can be is to be determined. Through 2022, we had 99.3% completion. We had the best completion in the whole industry. In 2023 we obviously have been below that. So, we’re anxious to get back on track and we appreciate the patience of our Morgantown customers the past few months,” Cestari said.
“Morgantown is one of our best-performing cities, particularly our Washington-Dulles route. With four flights a day, it’s one of our most popular in our entire system.”
But airport-related staffing issues extend to city employees as well.
“Just in our airport staffing we’ve experienced some really difficult times in being fully staffed there. There’s a lot of stress on the airport staff right now to try to keep up with all the demands for maintenance,” City Manager Kim Haws told members of Morgantown City Council. “They’re doing the best they can.”