In July, when the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the airport a $ 750,000 grant to help set the route, airport officials had hoped flights between Duluth and Denver, a major destination on the West Bank, would begin next year. .
But a shortage of pilots is making it difficult for any airline to add new routes, or even staff of current itineraries.
“I think the issue of the lack of a crew has made departure less likely at 22,” said Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, in an interview with News Tribune on Wednesday. It is much more likely that they were watching a launch of that service in 2023.
By 2040, North America will need 130,000 pilots and even more technicians and cabin crew members, aircraft manufacturers Boeing said in Pilot and Technician Outlook 2021-2040.
Although the pilot’s absence preceded COVID-19, the pandemic exacerbated it.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the number of airline passengers fell. The airlines stopped the planes, laid off employees and offered purchases.
Many young pilots lost their jobs last year, causing some to change careers and leave the industry altogether, the Boeings report said. At the same time, many experienced pilots accepted early voluntary retirement packages and those who remain will not be able to fly for commercial airlines once they reach the mandatory retirement age.
As passengers return to flight, airlines have struggled to find enough staff to accommodate them.
Locally, United Airlines once operated up to three non-stop daily flights from Duluth to Chicago OHare International Airport. But throughout November, it will fly only once a day, colliding with up to two flights a day in December. Earlier this month, the airport said the cause was a lack of pilots, not a demand for passengers.
This shortage of pilots is making it difficult to secure an airline for the long-awaited route to Denver.
So we need a carrier that has pilots and planes ready to fly in 2023, Werner said. And we’re talking to a couple now and we’re talking to another couple here in the coming weeks in the hope of keeping that in front of them.
The grant was created to mitigate start-up risk for any airline seeking to start a new route at a smaller airport, Werner said. In addition to the grant, the airport provided $ 250,000 in community promises for the $ 1 million project, including $ 100,000 from the city of Duluth and $ 75,000 from St. Louis. Louis County, has previously reported the News Tribune.
The airport currently offers non-stop daily flights to Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Pali. In December, Sun Country will begin offering twice-weekly flights to Fort Myers, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona, through mid-April.
Current flights are, in a way, a test for airlines seeking the addition of other routes from Duluth.
Is not a chicken and egg argument what comes first, passenger demand or airline? said Werner. We need to demonstrate demand and a business case in order for the airline to be successful and seize an opportunity for us. This does not happen without people entering our doors and not supporting the local product.
After a huge drop in airline passengers passing through Duluth International Airport at the start of the pandemic from 25,111 in February 2021 to just 1,243 in April 2021, the numbers have risen steadily but still lag behind pre-pandemic figures.
In September, the most recent month with available data, more than 23,500 passengers flew in and out of Duluth. This is about 20% less from September 2019 and almost 9% from the 2018 figures.
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Similarly, national figures reflect this. According to American Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Instead, most travel has been for fun, while business travel, which has long been the backbone of the airport, has not fully recovered, Werner said.
This particular virus and pandemic as a whole has limited travel, certainly reduced travel requirements, Werner said. But I am happy to report that it has started to come back and so I think there is a segment of the population that is learning to live with the virus to some extent, and for them, that means their travel habits will resume.
Werner estimates the vaccine increases with the number of passengers.
Looking ahead to 2022, he said the airport conservatively estimates the number of passengers will remain around 15% below 2019, which the airport is using as a benchmark.
I think if business travel were to turn strongly into the first or second quarter across the country, we could be on it, Werner said.
It would still be an improvement over 2021. Werner predicts the year will end around 30% below the number of passengers for 2019.
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