SkyWest regional jets sitting on the tarmac. Photography courtesy of James P.
In March, SkyWest Airlines advised the Department of Transportation of its plans to cut 29 routes that it serves through the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program. SkyWest is a popular regional airline that serves feeder routes for major airlines like American, Delta, Alaska, and United Airlines. While only affecting select United Airlines routes, these plans would leave all but one of the cities on the list without scheduled air service.
Map of communities SkyWest would like to back out of. Graphic courtesy of Nicole Lund.
The 29 city routes SkyWest wants to drop include: Alamosa, Colorado; Pueblo, Colorado; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Mason City, Iowa; Sioux City, Iowa; Dodge City, Kansas; Hays, Kansas; Liberal, Kansas; Salina, Kansas; Paducah, Kentucky; Decatur, Illinois; Houghton, Michigan; Muskegon, Michigan; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; Joplin, Missouri; Meridian, Mississippi; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Devils Lake, North Dakota; Jamestown, North Dakota; Kearney, Nebraska; North Platte, Nebraska; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Victoria, Texas; Shenandoah, Virginia; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Clarksburg, West Virginia; and Lewisburg, West Virginia.SkyWest cannot easily drop these federally protected routes. The EAS program was enacted after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Prior to 1978, the government highly regulated prices, routes, and destinations. EAS protects routes that will not survive on the free market. Airlines are highly affected by supply and demand. Smaller, less-traveled routes would be unprofitable for the airlines, resulting in discontinued service. EAS compensates for these routes by providing scheduled air service to smaller communities across the United States. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are currently 115 EAS airports in the lower 48 states.
Eligibility for EAS depends on enplanements and distance from the closest medium/large hub airport. Communities must be at least 70 miles away from a medium/large airport. Airports more than 210 miles away can have a subsidy rate of over $200 per ticket. EAS airports must also have a minimum of ten enplanements a day. Waivers to these requirements can be granted on a case-by-case basis.
Although SkyWest Airlines would like to back out of these communities due to troubles with staffing pilots, the government will require SkyWest Airlines to continue service until another bidder acquires the route. Other popular carriers that have EAS routes include Envoy Air, Cape Air, Key Lime Air, and Boutique Air.
SkyWest's staffing issue was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Major and regional airlines halted pilot hiring amid the pandemic. Airlines such as American, Delta, and United, offered early retirement plans to their pilots to reduce payroll expenses when routes were cut during the pandemic. With the rollout of vaccines, air travel began to increase again. This has left the airlines with a staffing shortage. Major airlines are hiring regional pilots at an astronomical rate. The regionals, such as SkyWest Airlines, cannot train and staff new pilots fast enough to keep up with the senior pilots that are leaving. Dropping EAS routes would make more pilots available to fly the busier, more profitable routes.
Time will tell if other airlines will bid on the routes SkyWest intends to drop. The current pilot shortage is placing a staffing strain on the entire industry. In the meantime, SkyWest will continue service to the 29 routes until a new bidder is found.