A shortage of pilots has led US regional carrier Horizon Air to cancel a significant number of flights this summer, including some 6% of the airline's flights in August, parent company Alaska Air Group confirms.

Though the company says the cancellations reflect a broad industry shortage of cockpit crew, Horizon's pilot union lays blame at the carrier for policies that it says failed to address a looming shortage.

Horizon made the cancellations, which The Seattle Times reported on 29 June, proactively in a move that will enable Horizon to operate reliably the remainder of its network, the company tells FlightGlobal in an emailed statement.

The cancellations reflect just 2% of August flights operated by all of Alaska's subsidiaries, which include Horizon, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, the company says.

"Like the rest of the industry, Horizon Air is facing a shortage of pilots caused by attrition and unprecedented Alaska Air Group growth," says Alaska. "Things are looking up for Horizon. June and July pilot new-hire classes are full and we've stepped up our recruiting efforts."

"But it will take time for the new recruitment efforts… to bear fruit," Alaska adds, noting that it expects to hire 300 new pilots in 2017.

Horizon primarily operates Bombardier Q400s – it has 52 of the type, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer.

FlightGlobal schedules data show those aircraft will operate some 11,400 flights in August, which would put the number of cancellations at nearly 700.

Horizon also has six Embraer 175s in its fleet, though monthly flight figures for those aircraft are unavailable.

To address the shortage, Horizon is paying bonuses up to $20,000 for new Q400 pilots and up to $10,000 for new E175 pilots, says Alaska.

Horizon also pays pilots enrolled at some flight schools up to $11,000 in expenses, and a recently-amended pilot agreement has increased starting pay to $40 hourly, up from $30 hourly, Alaska says.

Horizon is also increasing its number of reserve pilots, deploying management pilots to line flying, increasing its number of recruiters to six from two, and adding more pilots to supervise training, Alaska says.

Horizon is even offering 200% pay to existing pilots who will fly additional hours, confirms Greg Unterseher, director of representation at union Airline Professionals Association (APA), a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Many regional US airlines in recent years have cited a shortage of pilots, and many have attributed it to a 2013 rule requiring commercial pilots have 1,500h of flight time, up from 250h.

The APA says Horizon has failed to address the problem.

"The situation at Horizon is a result of the company’s long-standing refusal to confront the depth and causes of the pilot shortage," says the APA in a statement to FlightGlobal. "For more than a year and a half, pilots raised concerns about this unfolding crisis with management. But despite these efforts, the company continued to pursue policies that only exacerbated the problem."

The union has argued that low overall pay contributed the pilot shortage, and Unterseher says Horizon's lack of a formal pilot "flow-through" agreement further hinders hiring.

Such agreements would give Horizon pilots a defined path to advance to larger aircraft operated by Alaska, he says.

The union had also until recently criticised Horizon for paying bonuses to new hires, arguing instead that the carrier should raise overall pay rates.

Indeed, in January news broke that the APA and Teamsters sued Horizon over the issue, claiming bonuses violated its labour agreement.

That issue was resolved when pilots ratified a new contract in May that enables Alaska to pay up to $25,000 in a mix of bonuses to new hires, but also requires the carrier pay all existing pilots $15,000, Unterseher says.

In a 15 June securities filing Alaska said it recorded a one-time $9 million expense related to the new pilot deal.

The union also opposes the 200% pay incentive to existing pilots, calling those moves "short-term gimmicks and band aids", says Unterseher.

"The problem is, they do it and [then] they take it away at their whim," he says. "That's what's gotten us into the problem we are in right now."

Source: FlightGlobal.com