Mainline carriers in the USA are expected to increase their pilot hiring during the second half, even as some plan capacity cuts.

Delta Air Lines, which plans to cut capacity by about 1% this year compared to 2011, is understood to need additional crews to replace retirees and to fly 88 Boeing 717-200s they will receive from Southwest Airlines beginning in 2013, according to sources.

Alaska Airlines and US Airways, which are the only two mainline carriers that will increase capacity this year, plan to hire pilots for their 2013 flying needs, say the airlines. They anticipate that capacity will increase by 6% and 2%, respectively, this year.

American Airlines and United Airlines have yet to disclose any potential hiring this year, though this is not unexpected as both carriers are likely to shrink capacity. American has not released guidance but United plans to cut capacity by between 0.5% and 1.5% this year compared to 2011.

Mainline carriers largely curtailed pilot hiring following the credit crunch in 2008 as they cut schedules and parked aircraft. There have been some new openings since but, by and large, the airlines have mostly drawn on their past furloughs to fill the ranks during the interim.

"Industry-wide, hiring needs are a function of projected retirement and contract productivity trends," says Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst at RW Mann & Company. That is exactly what is happening - a large number of pilots are beginning to come up against the US Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) mandatory retirement age of 65, and new labour contracts are either being negotiated or implemented at American, Delta and United.

Delta completed a new three-and-a-half-year contract with its pilots in June where it agreed to lease the 717s in exchange for more large regional jets and fewer 50-seat jets at its regional partners. The new aircraft coupled with retirements could prompt pilot hiring to begin in the fourth quarter though the number of positions is not yet clear, say sources.

New hires would begin as a first officer on the 717 or the DC-9, according to the Atlanta-based carrier's contract with its pilots.

Delta says that it has not announced any new hiring for 2012. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Delta master executive council declines to comment.

The airline has not hired pilots since 2010, according to reports.

Alaska has 34 pilot positions out of 78 it still needs to fill this year and about 118 next year, says Will McQuillen, membership committee chairman for ALPA's Alaska master executive council and a first officer at the carrier. He says that the airline has continued to hire during the past few years with the incoming pilots this year coming from applications that it received in 2011.

New hires would start as first officers on the Boeing 737 and would likely be based in Anchorage or Los Angeles, which are the carrier's most junior pilot domiciles, says McQuillen.

Alaska confirms ALPA's numbers.

US Airways plans to hire additional pilots this year for 2013, says the Tempe, Arizona-based airline. It attributes the need to an increased number of retirements due to the FAA's mandatory retirement age.

The carrier did not specify a number.

US Airways ran two classes of new first officers for the Embraer 190 in July, which were drawn from applications that were received in 2011, it says. The majority of E190 operations are from the carrier's Charlotte, Philadelphia and Washington National hubs.

The US Airline Pilots Association, which represents US Airways' pilots, did not respond to repeated queries by press time.

American outlined plans to furlough up to 400 pilots as part of its request to reject its pilots contract in bankruptcy court in April. It had 3,074 pilots on furlough out of 10,738 on its seniority list as of 1 February, according to court documents.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier has not hired pilots since 1998, it says.

United says that it is not currently recalling furloughed pilots or hiring. It would not provide a timeline for future openings.

The Chicago-based airline must recall the 1,435 pilots that it has on furlough before it can begin hiring fresh faces, says the ALPA United master executive council. "[We] hope they come back as soon as possible," says the union.

United last recalled between 100 and 200 pilots for its Continental subsidiary during the second half of 2011, according to an employee newsletter.

Boeing estimates that airlines in North America need 69,000 new pilots by 2031, in its latest long-term market outlook released in July.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news