Cape Air is significantly scaling back its flights between Hyannis and Nantucket this summer due a shortage of pilots, so much so that the airline has just one scheduled departure from Cape Cod to the island on the Fourth of July.
The extent of the cutbacks to Cape Air’s Nantucket-Hyannis route was revealed over the past week when it updated its online schedule, showing reduced flights starting in June. Days which previously would have eight or more scheduled departures to Nantucket now have just one or two.
“It’s sad,” said Erin Hatzell, Cape Air’s managing director for marketing and public relations, who confirmed the cutbacks in the airline’s Hyannis-Nantucket route.
“It’s obviously not something we want to do during our high season, but we’re struggling with pilots right now,” Hatzell added. “The entire industry is enduring a pilot shortage and we’re facing the brunt of it. We’re trying to be cautious and not sell a bunch of flights and then have to cancel on our passengers, we’re preparing for what the situation is.”
The decision by Cape Air continues the trend of its diminishing presence on Nantucket. In its heyday, Cape Air’s Nantucket Airlines would fly more than 1,200 people daily to and from the island, doing 100 to 120 flights per day. But all that changed with the advent of the fast ferries that began servicing Nantucket in 1995, prompting Cape Air to pull back significantly to focus more on longer stage routes.
The latest cutbacks are expected to hit Nantucket, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard, as well as other Cape Air hubs including parts of the Caribbean and Portland, ME, where Cape Air has had to stop flying altogether.
“These are our legacy markets, our bread and butter, but a lot of our flying we’ve had to pull down is our incremental flying,” Hatzell said. “Our planning department has worked very hard to do the best they can. But we don’t want to sell seats and have to cancel on our customers.”
Hatzell declined to say how many pilots Cape Air needs to restore service on the Nantucket-Hyannis route to its previous level. But the national pilot shortage is affecting major carriers and small airlines across the board.
The competition for pilots among airlines has resulted in Cape Air losing some of its workforce, and it is facing frenzied competition to recruit new pilots.
“They’re getting poached and getting offered bonuses,” Hatzell said of Cape Air’s pilots. “It’s a really tough situation and it's cutthroat in the industry right now. What’s happening is the majors (large airlines) are going through a hiring frenzy and our first officers, when they’re upgrading to ATP (airline transport pilot certificate), instead of moving to the left seat in our aircrafts, they’re getting hired by our competitors and the major airlines.”
Even larger carriers have recently announced service cutbacks to Nantucket. The beleaguered Jet Blue recently updated its schedule to show that it will not be flying to Nantucket from either LaGuardia Airport or the Newark Liberty International Airport until after July 5 at the earliest. Typically those routes begin service between Memorial Day and mid-June.
Beyond the pilot shortage, Cape Air is also facing difficult decisions in where to trim its schedules due to the fact that the airline has Essential Air Service (EAS) contracts with the federal government to serve rural areas. They include many of Cape Air’s routes in the midwest and places like Rutland, VT, and Lebanon, NH. So even though Nantucket remains one of Cape Air’s “legacy markets,” as Hatzell described it, the airline is required to preserve other routes and utilize its pilots elsewhere due its EAS obligations.
“Cape Air is a small community air service provider and those providers have the hardest time retaining pilots in this labor environment,” said Nantucket Memorial Airport assistant manager Noah Karberg. "Other communities and carriers are facing the exact same situation. We support Cape Air, as they have a long history on Nantucket. We’ll bring this to the (airport) commission for an advocacy position to review with our congressional delegation if there is a way to improve any federal regulations that are hindering the ability of airlines to find and retain pilots.”
Karberg specifically mentioned the possibility of altering the so-called “FAA 1500 Hour Rule” which was implemented in 2013 and requires pilots to accrue 1,500 hours of flight time before becoming eligible to obtain their ATP certificate. The rule was implemented following the Colgan Air crash in 2009, and significantly raised the required number of hours pilots need to be certified.
“The community also needs to consider its advocacy position if this is something for the county and our elected officials to pursue," Karberg said. "That is the cost of having the type of service we’ve become accustomed to.”
Hatzell said if Cape Air is able to hire additional pilots ahead of the summer, some of the cancelled flights could be restored. She also emphasized that the airline is hiring, and would like to hire local candidates if possible.
“It will correct itself, but it will take some time,” Hatzell said. “We are hiring and looking for local pilots. The great thing for our pilots is you’re home every night. We’re hiring in your backyard.”