A flight engineer enters a CAE Inc. 7000 series Boeing Co. 737-800 flight simulator at a CAE facility in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on Tuesday, August 13, 2019.

Christinne pussy | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Some of the airline’s most sought-after flights this summer don’t even leave the ground.

Flight simulators from Atlanta to Dallas to Miami and elsewhere are buzzing as airlines struggle to train hundreds of pilots to handle a surge in bookings that began this spring with the introduction of vaccinations and the easing of Covid-era restrictions.

Domestic vacation travel has rebounded to 2019 levels while business travel is also recovering, airlines said this month.

Airlines have received $ 54 billion in federal aid since March 2020 in return for not laying off workers. But voluntary departures, changed fleets and the rapidly increasing demand for travel have created a need for pilot training that, according to industry experts, is unparalleled. Reduced flight schedules also meant pilots failed to make their minimum take-offs and landings, which were necessary to maintain their flight status. Training pilots on new aircraft can take weeks, while annual retraining can take a few days.

“What is unique about this experience is the drop-off in business [early in the pandemic] was an existential threat to the business, “said Bryan Terry, Managing Director and Global Aviation Leader at Deloitte.” And what came, the unexpected part, the return to travel came faster than expected. “

That “puts a very tight schedule” on pilot training, he added.

The airline’s executives urged pilots and other employees to take early retirement and absences at reduced pay to reduce costs. They parked hundreds of jets and put some planes off entirely.

David Johnson, a first officer on the American Airlines Airbus A320, was on short leave in the fall between two aid packages from the airline. While he was recalled after the next round of federal assistance in December, his five-day training session was rescheduled to be more than five months later, meaning the pilots won’t be returning to the line immediately.

Attracting enough pilots through training, which can become tedious when changing aircraft, will help determine how well airlines are responding to the recovery in demand. Storms and staff shortages have made operations at Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, as well as other airlines, difficult this summer. When not enough pilots are ready to fly, airlines have less support.

“They came into the summer with very little wiggle room,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which represents the airline’s aviators, of the Dallas-based airline.

Southwest, which recently said it flies almost as much as it did in summer 2019, more than other airlines, suffered hundreds of cancellations and delays in mid-June and early July caused by bad weather and technology issues.

Southwest still has around 500 first officers on temporary leave, the company said. The approximately 900 pilots who were called back prematurely from vacation exceed their training capacities, the union said.

Pilot training begins at 5:30 a.m. most days and ends at 11 p.m., a spokesman said. The airline is in the process of hiring check pilots from its ranks as well as flight instructors, he added.

American Airlines, which also flies more than its competitors United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, had expected to complete pilot training by the end of summer, according to a corporate memo in April. However, the airline has moved this up to allow most pilots to complete training by the end of June, in part with additional training capacity to keep up with the robust summer schedule, according to those familiar with the matter.

More than 90% of American Boeing 737 pilots have been trained on the 737 Max, the aircraft that regulators re-released to fly after two fatal crashes, said a person familiar with the operation. It decided to train the remaining roughly 10% on the Max once the pilots completed their requalification training, said the person. The carrier flies both the Max and an older 737.

The airline was also looking for volunteers last month to fly temporarily from various hubs, including 777 pilots at its hub at Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

“We always knew – we prayed – we had to step on the gas at some point,” said Chip Long, Americans vice president of flight operations. “We’re doing this now and it feels really good.”

Long said the airline plans to hire more simulator pilots to handle the training loads.

At a turning point in the pandemic, American welcomed its first class of new pilots last week whose training was derailed by the virus in March 2020. Other airlines have also announced plans to resume the hiring process, which will keep instructors and simulators busy for months.

American recently cut its flight schedule by about 1%, or nearly 1,000 flights, through mid-July to avoid disruption from staffing shortages or other issues.

Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents the company’s 15,000 or so pilots, said the airline overwhelmed itself when it first started planning its late spring and summer flight schedule.

“Mother nature creates storms and management creates storms,” ​​he said.

Delta has been more cautious about opening flights this summer. The Atlanta-based airline had a large number of flight cancellations and delays over Thanksgiving and Christmas due to a lack of pilots.

Hundreds of Delta pilots have switched to other aircraft or been promoted due to a series of aircraft shutdowns, pilot buyouts and other issues, according to the union. The airline will employ nearly 700 first flight captains, an action that will require additional training.

“We want nothing less than for Delta to regain its position as an industry leader, a position they held before Covid,” said Chris Riggins, spokesman for the Delta Chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. “To help with this, our pilots have done their part throughout the pandemic. Now, as we recover, we are aggressively signing up for overtime flights at a pace that has set a number of new consecutive monthly records going back to last November. “

Pilots have also been working record overtime for several months, the union said.

The airline said on Wednesday that training and recruitment in preparation for summer 2022 contributed to a four percentage point increase in costs in the second quarter.

Delta plans to hire 1,000 pilots next year, and now the airline is considering how to allow pilots to apply to fly certain aircraft to avoid training backups.

“One of the options we’re looking at is making more frequent and smaller ones [advanced entitlement bids] to allow us to more easily manage the training schedule and transition process, “wrote Bob Schmelzer, Director of Crew Resource Planning, Analytics and Reporting, in a July 9th memo to pilots.

Delta declined to say if it would have added more flights this summer if it had more trained pilots available.

United Airlines has escaped some of the problems that hit other airlines. Like Delta, it has added less capacity to the market. Its senior vice president of flight operations said an agreement last year with its pilots union, which trains many of its pilots and keeps many of its pilots ready to fly, will give the airline an edge over its competitors.

“Thanks to [the agreement], We are in a great position to support United’s recovery, “said Bryan Quigley in a July 7 employee communication.” I appreciate your continued focus on our operations – we have a great opportunity to meet our customers this summer win and make United the airline of choice. “