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Horizon chief calls schedule cuts 'painful setback'

The chief executive of Horizon Air sent a stark email to employees last week expressing disappointment about an ongoing pilot shortage that he describes as derailing the regional carrier's expansion plans.

The note, sent on 21 July to all staff by Horizon chief David Campbell, also says the carrier will extend schedule cuts into September, transfer some flying to Alaska Airlines and SkyWest Airlines and take steps to ensure that executives remain accountable.

"I’ll never forget the feeling when I announced the arrival of our first jet on US soil… The result of our hard work and vision," Campbell says in the note that was obtained by FlightGlobal. "Then, last month, we watched our efforts fall apart."

"Our ability to attract, train and retain pilots did not keep pace with our growth plans, and that led to numerous cancellations since December. Clearly, we were not at our best and our leadership team did not deliver for you and our guests," he says.

Pilot shortages affected the operation of Bombardier Q400 turboprops, Horizon's primary fleet type, Campbell says

"While this is a painful setback, with your help we will get back on track to secure and grow our airline," says the note, which had the subject "Horizon Air Schedule Reduction".

Horizon's parent company Seattle-based Alaska Air Group did not respond to a request for more information about the schedule cuts and about Horizon's recovery plans.

Campbell's email comes as Horizon expands its fleet of Embraer 175 regional jets while struggling with a shortage of cockpit crew that has forced the carrier to cancel hundreds of flights in recent months, including 6% of August departures, Alaska Air confirmed last month.

Alaska did not provide a specific number of flight cancellations, but Horizon's Bombardier Q400s were to operate some 11,400 flights in August, which would put the number of cancellations at nearly 700 flights, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Horizon took delivery of its first E175 in March, has six in service today and expects to acquire another 27 by the end of 2018, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer.

Like other airlines, Horizon responded to the pilot shortage by paying new-hire bonuses to pilots. That practice stirred a dispute with Horizon's pilot union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but the parties settled differences when they reached a new contract in May.

The pilot shortage remains.

"It’s critical that we stabilise our operation and protect our vision for this airline," writes Campbell in his note. "To do this will mean taking a few steps back, to go forward."

The note details several of those steps.

Horizon will "further reduce" flight schedules starting 4 September, Campbell writes.

"The details are still being sorted, but we know it will impact four to six lines of flying, and Alaska and SkyWest will pick up those flights at least through the winter," he says.

"This gives us time for a reset," Campbell adds. "I know this is a hard pill to swallow."

Campbell says Horizon's pilot classes "are beginning to fill up" and that Alaska Airlines is helping with recruiting.

"But, it’s important to note, this isn’t enough to address the issues that led to the crew shortages," he adds.

More broadly, the company is rebuilding its processes for pilot planning and training, Campbell's letter says.

"Improvements also involve new expectations for the entire leadership team and the assurance of accountability," he writes.

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