Pilot shortage felt at GTRA

Passengers wait to board a flight from Golden Triangle Regional Airport on Thursday.
Staff Writer

Jammed planes in October and November have Golden Triangle Region Airport on track for a second-straight record year.

But even with a great incentive package, until the nation's airline industry overcomes its pilot and mechanic shortages, it will be difficult for the state's third busiest airport to pick up coveted westbound service to Dallas or Houston.

According to GTRA numbers, 3,936 passengers boarded planes in October and another 622 took charter flights. In November, 3,696 passengers flew out and another 328 left on charters.

Both passenger numbers were the best ever for those months. So far this year, 38,097 people have flown Delta's commercial service to Atlanta and another 2,480 have flown charters. That's 40,577 for the year, 1.3 percent above last year when a record 43,254 flew during 12 months. And December also is off to a strong start. It marks the sixth straight year with more than 40,000 passengers.
Convenience and an improved on-time average by Delta have helped along with competitive pricing.

"Last month it was 95 percent with the industry average being 83 percent," GTRA Director Mike Hainsey said of Delta's on-time rate in November. Delta has done a good job. I'm sure everyone remembers when we were canceling 10 percent of the flights and were on time only 60 percent."

For three years, Hainsey, his staff and the airport's consultant, with the help of local industry executives, have tried to coax American or some other airline to offer service to the west, particularly to the Dallas or Houston hubs. That service would be significant compliments to Delta's eastbound service to Atlanta and satisfy the needs of Paccar, Yokohama and some of the region's other big industries that have offices to the west.

The efforts include a federal grant and local matching money that total about $2 million to guarantee a profit at least for the first year while the new service gets its feet on the ground.
So far, all they've gotten is "check back next year."

"I'm convinced it's going to happen. There's an economic case for it. They've said the incentives are great, they aren't the reason they aren't coming. They have to be able to support not just our service but there other routes, too. What they've told us is they don't know if they have the pilots to fill the service they have now. They're not going to start service to new markets out of Dallas right now. They said call them in January," Hainsey said of conversations with American Airlines.

The same pilot shortage is hampering Delta's ability to expand its GTRA service, despite occupancy rates of above 90 percent, even on Saturday morning flights.

"Delta says it doesn't have the ability to give us another flight because of the pilot shortage," he stated.

Delta offers three flights to and from Atlanta each weekday as well as flights on Saturday and Sunday.

Worldwide, an estimated 26,000 pilots will retire in the next 10 years. Airlines already face shortages and are expected to see a net decrease of 15,000 pilots during the next decade. While airlines are raising salaries and finding better ways to train new fliers, it's still not filling the current or anticipated gaps, Hainsey explained.

Statewide, only the Jackson and Gulfport airports are busier than GTRA. Those three also are the only ones bringing in enough revenue to support themselves without federal or local subsidies. For instance, the Tupelo airport receives a $4.3 million federal subsidy to help maintain service there. At Meridian, the number is $6.2 million.