Analysis: Pilot training puzzle tests U.S. airlines as the trip takes off

As millions of Americans prepare for a summer of vacation flights, Ben Wallander hits the books and the simulator.

The 27-year-old is one of hundreds of Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) and American Airlines (AAL.O) pilots rush to train after surge in travel bookings spurred by COVID-19 vaccinations .

Thousands of pilots at Delta and American have lost their active status, which expires after 90 days without flying, at some point over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has dampened air travel and put airlines down. kneeling.

But a long Memorial Day weekend in the United States starting on Friday is expected to usher in an increase in summer pleasure travel forecasts that will test airlines’ ability to handle a long-awaited return.

While airlines have already retrained many of their pilots, the travel renaissance has forced Delta and American to seek more simulators and flight instructors to speed up training and unlock a blockage, people familiar with the matter said.

The two airlines are beneficiaries of three COVID-19 relief programs worth $ 54 billion, mostly in free money, the industry has argued there is a need to keep workers as pilots with demands to expensive training ready.

Analysts warn that failure to ensure a smooth travel resumption could lead to flight cancellations and delays in generating the cash needed to pay off pandemic debt.

“It’s quite a puzzle,” said Vik Krishnan, aviation consultant at McKinsey, of the logistics of pilot training, comparing them to a game of Tetris.

Delta and American must train pilots who have flown on retired fleets due to the pandemic as well as those who fill vacancies on different types of aircraft after colleagues took buyouts, in addition to training requirements annual recurring.

“Our pilot training has stayed on track with our planned operational plans, and continues to be,” said Delta spokesperson Anthony Black.

US spokesperson Sarah Jantz said: “We have the training capacity ready and are able to cope with the expected increase in theft.”

ARROW AND BUST

Before the coronavirus crisis, global air transport was growing at a record rate of 5% per year, generating a need for 804,000 pilots over the next 20 years, according to estimates by Boeing (BA.N).

But volatility in pilot availability has plagued the airline industry, which has gone from global shortages before COVID-19 to unemployment or leave plans during the pandemic and has now renewed concerns about bottlenecks on the key US market.

The problem snowballed during the industry’s worst downturn, putting further pressure on it.

Delta has about 12,600 pilots and has posted 1,600 internal captain and co-pilot positions, according to memos.

Wallander, an Airbus (AIR.PA) A220 pilot, was recalled by Delta in March, but his training is not scheduled until June.

He told Reuters he decided to stick with the A220 for his return to the cockpit because it means he doesn’t have to “go through a long training course”.

The courses can last from a few days to several weeks depending on the length of the pilots’ absence and the change in position or type of aircraft.

All pilots must spend time in simulators, of which airlines have a limited number, followed by flights alongside a captain, who signs on their return.

However, many of these “control” pilots in turn require training on different types of aircraft following fleet changes or have retired, leaving a lack of knowledge and resources.

“All of this has a cascading effect on training,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 pilots at American.

United Airlines (UAL.O), America’s other major international airline, has struck a deal with its pilots union that has helped nearly 12,000 flights maintain their active flight status during the pandemic.

Among measures to boost training, American is leasing CAE of Canada-owned simulators (CAE.TO) at its home base in Texas, while Delta is conducting more training beyond its base in Atlanta and adjusts simulator time briefings to get about 25% more sessions per day, sources said.

The American plans to steal about 90% of its domestic pre-pandemic program this summer. Delta is also ramping up its flights and expects its planes to be around 90% full this weekend.

“We slammed the brakes really quickly and now we’re coming back even faster,” said Chris Riggins, spokesperson for the Airline Pilots Association at Delta.

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