Airline unions accuse SkyWest of evading safety rules by seeking charter status for flights

Airline unions are fighting a request by SkyWest Airlines to operate some flights as charters, accusing the company of trying to evade safety rules for passenger airlines.

SkyWest is not a familiar name to most air travelers, but it is one of many small carriers that operate flights for American Eagle, United Express and Delta Connection. The Utah-based company asked the U.S. Transportation Department for permission to operate new flights under less-restrictive charter-airline rules if it limits planes to 30 seats.

Significantly, charter pilots do not need as much experience as pilots on scheduled airline flights. Under a rule that Congress passed after a 2009 crash that killed 50 people, most candidates for airline jobs need 1,500 hours of flight time — fewer hours only if they have military experience or a degree from an accredited aviation school. Charter pilots also aren’t required to retire at 65, like airline pilots.

“If approved, the SkyWest scheme would gut the safety rule, make flying less safe, and reward them with taxpayer funding,” Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said Tuesday.

SkyWest says it plans to use pilots who hold airline-standard licenses for the charter flights. The company says charter service is the only way to preserve flights to many smaller communities that major airlines no longer serve. SkyWest says 82% of communities in the taxpayer-subsidized Essential Air Service program are served only by charters.

“We share your priorities of providing these flights with safety, security, service, and reliability as our highest concerns,” the airline’s CEO, Russell Childs, wrote in a letter last week to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Childs vowed that SkyWest will surpass other charter operators — and some low-cost airlines — in pilot training, rest rules and other practices.

Several smaller cities served by SkyWest support the company’s plan. In a typical one, Salina, Kansas, Mayor Michael Hoppock wrote that SkyWest’s charter operation “represents the best opportunity to maintain the level of service our airport requires and deserves.”

The Transportation Department has not indicated when it will rule.

Unions representing pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants and ground workers oppose the SkyWest bid. They have enlisted Peter DeFazio, a former congressman who oversaw the Transportation Department as a longtime House committee chairman. He said the SkyWest plan would “roll back the clock” for safety rules setting maximum working hours and minimum rest time between flights for airline pilots.

“I don’t see this as a way to perpetuate safe service to those (smaller) cities, and I see it as a huge step back from one level of aviation in this country,” DeFazio said. “I don’t see anything good coming of this.”

SkyWest has 13,100 employees, including 4,400 pilots, and 491 planes, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. The planes range from 50 to 76 seats. The charter operation would use Bombardier regional jets with 30 seats.

Small, so-called regional airlines have struggled with a pilot shortage. Last year, SkyWest indicated that it planned to drop 29 United Express destinations under the Essential Air Service program because it lacked pilots.

Bigger airlines have mostly been silent about the SkyWest charter plan.

American Airlines questioned whether SkyWest could enjoy a price advantage over regular airlines by following the example of JSX, another charter operator. JSX passengers don’t pay the Transportation Security Administration fee of $11.20 per round trip because they don’t go through TSA checkpoints while leaving from private terminals.

SkyWest promises to use TSA security.

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