Airports in Gregg and Smith counties haven’t logged negative effects of a reported pilot shortage, with an expected strong summer travel season on the horizon.
The East Texas Regional Airport in Gregg County and Tyler Pounds Regional Airport in Smith County report, though, that flights at those airports could see larger aircraft in use by American Eagle, which provides service from both airports to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
In Gregg County, airport Manager Roy Miller said flights have not been cut — as happened at some smaller airports this year among multiple airlines: American Eagle maintained its three round-trips a day at East Texas Regional Airport. New equipment is on its way to the airport, though, that will improve service.
American Eagle has said it’s moving away from the 50-seat airplanes it’s been using at East Texas Regional Airport and other locations to 70-seat planes, with a limited first class cabin and more leg room, Miller said.
“We’re going to be a part of that,” Miller said.
American has been experiencing “limited pilot shortages for some time,” Miller said, and industry projections say factors such as pilot retirements in coming years could exculp the issue.
But American Eagle has been able to staff the local routes, both airport directors said, and they’ve heard nothing at this point about planned service talking.
“I think our service is healthy and I think it’s going to improve,” Miller said.
East Texas Regional Airport’s activity is returning to pre-COVID numbers or better, he said.
March saw a total 6.8% increase in passengers. For the year so far, total passengers are up 23.3% from 2021, when a COVID surge continued to affect travel.
“I’m hoping we’re going to close the year out in double digit increases,” Miller said, adding that the expected larger regional jets will provide more capacity for more people to travel.
Robert Ison, CEO of American Airlines, provided an update on the airline’s staffing efforts in a conference call with industry analysts earlier this month. (The airline reported a $1.6 billion loss in the first quarter, but saw a net profit in March for the first time since July 2021 driven by lower infection rates, relaxed travel restrictions and “tremendous pent-up demand for people to travel.”
“Our summer planning began last year as demand returned, and we haven’t taken down,” Ison said. “American has 12,000 more team members in place to support the operation this summer than in the summer of 2021. We’ve already welcomed more than 600 new pilots this year, exceeding our goal. And we will continue to aggressively recruit, hire and train across all departments to develop the best pipeline of talent in the industry.
We’re ready for the summer, and we have sized the airline for the resources we have available. … We’ve also made targeted investments in people, technology and resources that are yielding promising results for our team members and customers.”
Thompson said the Tyler airport has seen a potential positive effect of people hearing news of the expected pilot shortage — more people are wanting to learn to fly and the student pilot population is growing as news of the need for pilots has spread along with the lifting of pandemic restrictions for travel.
Tyler Pounds Regional Airport typically has 3-6 American Eagle flights a day, Thompson said, and that airport, too, might be getting larger aircraft in the future.
“We also have charter operations here that, again, as people return to flying there’s a good upside there as well, with more business for the charter operations,” located at the airport, he said.
Activity at the airport is on the “upswing,” Thompson said, with a strong April.
“Locally, the American staff has been very robust,” he said, and he’s expecting a positive travel season this summer.