Airlines Fly Bigger Planes As Pilot Shortage, Congestion Continues

  • Airlines are putting passengers on bigger planes, as a pilot shortage and congestion at major airports continues. 
  • In the aviation industry, executives call it “upgauging.” 
  • But as airlines abandon some regional flight routes, some say smaller communities will be harmed.  

Demand for travel is on the rise in the US despite an ongoing pilot shortage, causing chaos and congestion at airports around the country. But there may be a simple solution — flying bigger planes. 

The 11 largest airlines in the US — including Jetblue, American Airlines, and Southwest — have begun flying larger planes on average, CNBC reported. According to aviation data firm Cirium, the average number of seats on a US domestic flight has increased from 141 to 153 since 2017. 

The trend even has a name in the aviation industry — upgauging. Rodney Cox, United Airlines’ vice president of airport operations, told CNBC it’s difficult to increase the volume of flights in and out of major airports, so bringing bigger planes to the tarmac helps offset demand. 

“The way we continue to grow our model and grow the business is to upgauge our flights,” he said.

During the pandemic, US airlines put their largest planes on domestic routes, according to CNBC, allowing airlines to fly more passengers per flight within the US. But as international travel demand picks back up, those jets are getting harder to come by, Cox said. 

Still, a United spokesperson told CNBC the airline would fly about 3,600 domestic flights with large or wide-body aircraft. The airline has also devoted some of its largest planes to routes between major hubs in the US and Orlando during the busy spring break season. 

But some restrictions still apply, especially when it comes to fitting massive planes at airport gates. 

“Not every gate is equal,” Cox told CNBC. “You can’t put a wide-body [airplane] on every single gate.”

Even as airlines like United put bigger planes at their gates when possible, passengers and congestion are still piling up. 

In an attempt to further alleviate overcrowding, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would allow airlines to reduce flights at airports serving New York City and at Washington’s Reagan National Airport in an attempt to avoid disruptions.

Additionally, airlines are reducing their reliance on regional feeder airlines, which service lower-demand routes. 

But even that causes problems of its own, as some are speaking out that reducing service could negatively impact smaller communities in the US. 

“This is one more harm for small communities who don’t have the passengers to fill larger planes,” Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association, told CNBC.

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