RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As the summer travel season nears, airlines are facing an industry-wide shortage of pilots, escalated by early retirements during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and significant training requirements.

Richmond International Airport (RIC) hosts eight major carriers, each offering nonstop flights to major domestic destinations and connecting service to points around the world: Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Breeze Airways, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines.

Breeze CEO David Neeleman, who previously co-founded Morris Air, WestJet, JetBlue and Azul Linhas Aereas, was in Central Virginia on Wednesday, celebrating the airlines first year at RIC, and taking the new transcontinental flight offering from RIC to SFO.

“Travel’s picking up, and the pendulum swung,” he told 8News. “There was a time during the pandemic [that] the pilots thought they’d never work again, and now, with those early retirements, it caused a lot of challenges in the industry.”

Neeleman said that, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, major airlines used government funding for early retirement for its pilots — approximately 7,000 of them.

“They kind of realized they shouldn’t have done that, and so they’ve been going to the regional airlines and hiring from those,” he said. “I think there’s about 300 airplanes that are parked in the United States that don’t have pilots to fly them.”

Credit: Olivia Jaquith / 8News

Neeleman said that Breeze has been able to retain its pilots by offering more competitive pay and destinations in which pilots can live and work after a day of flying.

8News reached out Monday night and Tuesday morning to the other major carriers that fly out of RIC. Allegiant, Spirit and United did not respond to requests for information.

Although a spokesperson for Delta declined an interview request, the airline issued a release, which stated that it is adding several hundred new pilots and flight attendants to the operation each month, as the company hires and trains in order to support growth. The spokesperson also notes that Delta’s schedules are stable beyond adjustments that have been made for July and early August, and that if a customer’s flight is affected, the airline has already been in touch with a new booking.

A spokesperson for Southwest said that the airline is currently not experiencing a shortage of pilots.

“Southwest appreciates being an employer of choice for pilots, and the airline experiences strong interest for First Officer positions,” they said in a statement. “In fact, Southwest received approximately 3,000 applications for the 120 First Officer positions hired in 2021,”

Credit: Olivia Jaquith / 8News

However, Mike Hatten, a former pilot with a commercial airline, told 8News that nearly all of the major airlines are being impacted by this pilot shortage.

“I know Southwest has been affected. They have cut […] maybe, 120 flights a day to different markets,” he said. “JetBlue has parked some airplanes, cut their schedule.”

During a conference last week, the CEO of American Airlines stated that the company is hiring 2,000 pilots this year.

But Hatten explained that doing so is a training undertaking that can take several years.

“Someone starting today in one of the academies […] will take about four years to five years before they are in the seat at a larger airline,” he said. “They can be ready in about two years to be in the seat at a regional carrier, thus allowing that regional carrier not to suffer as much when that pilot that’s more experienced at the regional leaves and goes to one of the larger airlines.”

Credit: Olivia Jaquith / 8News

Hatten said that he was actually a beneficiary of some of the early retirement incentives that happened industry-wide during the height of the pandemic, and that airlines have since had to completely restart.

“The most senior pilots, obviously, are the ones with the higher salaries,” he said. “I will defend the airlines on that a little bit — all of the airlines — because they didn’t know what was going to happen. This wasn’t an economic slowdown. This was an economic stop for the airlines. Future bookings just absolutely stopped.”

Hadden said airlines were unaware of how quickly the return to travel would happen.

He also noted a staggering statistic: 50% of airline pilots working currently are expected to retire in the next 10 years.

“There are peak years for different airlines,” Hadden said. “For instance, Delta peaks in 2022, their highest number. American peaks in 2023. A year that I think could be a year to watch, a bad year, is 2026. United and Southwest both have peak retirements that year, but they’re also in good shape because they’ve both been proactive at bringing pilots through the training pipeline.”

Hadden said he is hopeful that there will be significant recovery in the industry by the end of 2023 or the middle of 2024.

But in the meantime, manufacturers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airlines are studying the option of having one pilot in the cockpit, instead of two.

“Pilots don’t want it, obviously. The unions don’t want it,” Hadden said. “My personal opinion is it’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen until it’s safe, and we’re nowhere close to it being safe yet. Automation and technology have to increase incredible levels.”

Neeleman said that consideration of one pilot is a technological possibility, but something that is likely a ways away.

“This industry has belt and suspenders always, and so having the technology to let planes fly themselves, but also having not just one, but two pilots in the cockpit,” he said. “But you may see the day one day where you have someone on the ground and someone in the plane, and they’re both monitoring the flight.”