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Area residents deal with travel woes as national pilot shortage takes a toll on airports

A national pilot shortage has begun taking its toll on airports across the United States.

Grand Forks airport 2021.jpg
Workers at Grand Forks International Airport tend to a Delta jet, recently arrived from Minneapolis, as a private airplane takes off in the background Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)
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GRAND FORKS — Jeff Hart was supposed to take a week-long trip to Topsale Island, North Carolina, with his wife and her parents, aged 87 and 83, before delays ensued.

The trip was to be Hart’s in-laws’ last flight, due to their age and having to renew their REAL IDs in Minnesota. Hart booked a VRBO for a week before Memorial Day weekend, and the gang was set to fly out of Fargo at 5:50 a.m. Saturday. Then, at 11:38 p.m. the night before, when they were already in bed, he received a text message notifying him the flight was canceled because a thunderstorm had trapped the plane at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Hart was forced to re-book, but options were sparse with little notice. He ended up booking a flight Sunday that, instead of going from Fargo to O’Hare to Wilmington International Airport in North Carolina, went from Fargo to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to LaGuardia Airport in New York City before landing in Wilmington. Hart and his family ended up losing a day and a half of their vacation time.

“It ended up being a 12-hour trip,” Hart said.

This was hard on his in-laws, especially his father-in-law who has had a knee replacement. At LaGuardia, they had to travel to the other side of the airport for their next flight, but 30 minutes before takeoff, they were notified they would now be taking off back at the original gate.

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“With my father-in-law’s knee, his leg swells up quite a bit, and so we kept having to find places to put his leg up,” Hart said.

These stories are more common now than in recent years. A national pilot shortage has begun taking its toll on airports across the United States. Most recently, American Airlines stopped service to Islip, New York, Ithaca, New York, Toledo, Ohio, and Dubuque, Iowa, citing the pilot shortage as the main reason for scaling back .

The shortage is also affecting regional airlines.

“In North Dakota, and other rural communities around the country, most of our flights are operated by regional airlines, and so when there's a pilot shortage, the regional airlines tend to have larger impacts than the mainline carriers because they’re a pipeline,” Kyle Wanner, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said.

Wanner said regional airlines tend to have a more difficult time retaining pilots compared to the mainline carriers because of their feeder status, which puts more stress on communities more reliant on them — and there are many of them. Major airlines only directly serve 34% of the United States airports receiving scheduled passenger service, and regional airlines serve 94% of airports, according to Rally for Air Service.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted the pilot shortage, Wanner said the shortage was predicted before the pandemic began.

“When you look at the data and the statistics 46% of all qualified pilots are 50 to 64 years old, and so essentially the majority of our pilots are close to retirement,” Wanner said. “I think the projected hiring demand in 2022, they’d like to hire around 13,000 pilots.”

READ MORE ABOUT GRAND FORKS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The approximately $10.5 million repair is part of an overarching, yearslong infrastructure upgrade at the airport, among the largest in its history. It’s expected to make the airport more efficient and increase its capacity.

Wanner said last year, around 6,000 new pilots were trained into the system and hired by regional airlines, adding to the disconnect between the amount of pilots needed and the amount being introduced to the pipeline.

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Ryan Riesinger, executive director of the Grand Forks International Airport, said most flights were down when the pandemic began, so airlines offered early retirement packages to pilots who were not eligible yet, and many of them took it, as they were expecting layoffs.

“As we've continued through COVID, as the airlines have returned, and passengers have returned in strong numbers, it's exacerbated the problem,” Riesinger said. “It got back to being a true shortage of pilots quicker than the airlines anticipated.”

Riesinger said GFK would have more flights if it weren’t for the shortage. The flights taking off from the airport have mostly been full, and there are more flights available this year than in 2021. He hopes for more flights in the future, but he said it will likely be 2023 before it happens.

Jacob Holley joined the Grand Forks Herald as its business reporter in June 2021.

Holley's beat at the Grand Forks Herald is broad and includes a variety of topics, including small business, national trends and more.

Readers can reach Holley at jholley@gfherald.com.Follow him on Twitter @JakeHolleyMedia.
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