Pushing forward with an aggressive growth plan, Alaska Airlines has recalled all its pilots who had taken long-term leave during the pandemic, and this week it began training its first class of newly hired pilots since the downturn hit.
“We are growing our airline back from the deep cuts we made in 2020,” Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in a memo sent to pilots Wednesday.
In an interview Friday, he said the airline hopes to hire about 170 new pilots by year’s end.
Ladner laid out in his memo the brisk schedule for adding Boeing 737 MAXs to the Alaska fleet over the next six years. To ramp up pilot training on those aircraft, he said, two new MAX simulators will be ready for training next year to supplement the single MAX simulator Alaska operates now.
Alaska has just taken delivery of its seventh Boeing MAX and will take five more by year-end and another 63 over the following two years. It has a total of 93 MAXs on order with options to buy 52 more that it expects to add by 2026.
With those additions, next year Alaska’s fleet will climb back above its pre-pandemic level of 237 jets.
By the end of 2023, Alaska will have a fleet of 251 jets, and if it exercises all the MAX purchase options it will have more than 300 jets by the end of 2025.
Back from long leave
Last year more than 900 Alaska pilots chose to take extended leave to avoid furloughs. In an agreement with the pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association, management allowed pilots to sign up for leave varying from three months to more than two years with pay set at about 60% of normal wages and full benefits.
That deal allowed management to recall pilots with 45 days’ notice, to provide flexibility if air travel levels recovered. Now that’s happened on U.S. domestic routes.
International Air Transport Association data shows U.S. domestic air traffic in July had recovered to just over 92% of its level in the same month in 2019. Airlines are hoping that a dip in August traffic, as the delta coronavirus variant surged, will be temporary.
Alaska has now recalled all pilots who were on extended leave, and they “will be back within the next several weeks,” Ladner’s memo states.
With all the captains having been recalled by the end of the summer, the pilots returning now are some of the airline’s most senior first officers. Some haven’t flown for more than a year and all must undergo mandatory simulator training before resuming passenger service.
Meanwhile, the first new-hire class in over a year and a half started training Monday. This was a class of 10 pilots who will fly Alaska’s Airbus jets. Ladner said he expects an additional class of new hires will start every week through the end of the year.
To match the rapid ramp-up in training activity, Ladner told the pilots the airline has purchased two new 737 MAX full-motion simulators that will be installed at Boeing’s training facility in Longacres.
Capt. Jeff Severns, Alaska’s managing director of flight operations training, said it generally takes about 18 months from the beginning of construction of a flight simulator to it being ready for training. These sophisticated machines must be finely tuned to incorporate Boeing’s data software and cockpit configuration hardware, customized to replicate a specific jet in the Alaska fleet with Alaska-specific equipment.
He said Alaska was able to buy two in an advance-build stage from Montreal-based simulator maker CAE, so that they can be ready for training about a year from now.
Additionally, Alaska has acquired two simpler 737 MAX Flight Training Devices, which provide a cockpit-like setup where a pilot sits before a pilot display and controls, without the full motion. These will be ready for training use in the second quarter of 2022, said Severns.
And because Alaska pilots also fly the older model Boeing 737NGs, the airline has also bought a full-flight 737NG simulator from Southwest Airlines. Alaska is currently converting that machine at Longacres so that it simulates the 737-800 its pilots fly, rather than the 737-700 flown by Southwest.
That simulator should be ready by December.
To fulfill pilot training needs before the new simulators are ready, Alaska has leased Airbus and Boeing simulators in Dallas and Phoenix.
Pilot contract talks between Alaska management and the pilots’ union are currently deadlocked. At the end of last month, management filed for mediation with the National Mediation Board, which can be a lengthy process.
Alaska will report its third-quarter earnings on Oct. 21 and will lay out its growth plans in some detail then.