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American is ending service at 4 airports as airlines scramble to hire staff

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An American Airlines plane sits on the tarmac at the Philadelphia International Airport.

Early in the pandemic, airlines offered pilots early retirement, "and now they're finding themselves short-staffed," said David Slotnick of The Points Guy website. Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

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It is looking like the summer travel season is gonna be a busy one. Nearly all COVID-19-related restrictions have been lifted, including for international travelers, and lots of people are buying plane tickets. 

But airlines and airports can’t keep up. There’s a shortage of pilots, crew and all sorts of airport staff. Southwest pilots are picketing in Dallas this week over staffing shortages, and American Airlines just announced it’s canceling four regional routes in Ohio, New York and Iowa because it can’t find enough pilots.

When American leaves those routes on Sept. 7, there will only be one airline serving Toledo, Ohio, and none in Dubuque, Iowa.

“It’s a big deal,” said airline industry analyst Robert Mann.

It’s always been hard to run a small, regional airport. “You’re always — literally always — looking to expand service. And it’s a very difficult sell right now with limited resources,” he said.

When the pandemic first hit and almost no one was flying, airlines offered pilots buyouts and early retirement, said David Slotnick at the travel site The Points Guy.

“And now they’re finding themselves short-staffed,” he said. “They need to hire, and they typically recruit from these regional airlines to be able to hire quickly.”

For pilots, working for a big, national airline generally pays a lot better than working for a regional carrier. And for airlines, flying bigger planes to and from bigger hubs is a lot more lucrative than flying small planes to and from small airports.

According to aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, as long as there aren’t enough pilots and crew, “you’re gonna see airlines like American prioritize the larger markets, especially those with any kind of international connections.”

That means some smaller markets lose out, which can have a big impact on people who live nearby and the local economy. Plus, once a city loses an airline, it can be hard to get it back.

“St. Louis was once the center of TWA’s universe and had flights to Europe and wherever else,” said Aboulafia. “St. Louis, now, is sadly a much smaller airport, and I don’t think anyone dreams that it’s going to get back to what it once was.”

Sometimes, airlines do go back to a city they’ve left if demand picks up, Aboulafia added. Other times, start-up airlines see more established ones pulling out and think: opportunity. 

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