The Pilot Shortage Is Preventing People From Flying Between U.S. Virgin Islands

A pilot shortage, drawing pilots away from small operators, has left St. Thomas and St. Croix with virtually no air service between the two islands. These islands within the U.S. territory are virtually unconnected by passenger air, and this is the result of U.S. laws which limit the number of pilots, and which prevent world airlines from providing service. That needs to change.

Lack Of Pilots Hits Small Markets Hardest

U.S. airlines used government subsidies during the pandemic to pay pilots to retire early. And thanks to government rules that limit the number of pilots, to strengthen the bargaining position of pilots unions – like the 1500 hour rule and mandatory retirement age – there aren’t enough pilots and it takes a long time to bring on more.

That’s been a problem for regional airlines serving small cities, since their pilots get recruited away by major airlines. A pilot can be paid more to fly a bigger plane that carries more passengers. So the pilot shortage is felt most acutely by small airports.

U.S. Virgin Islands Are Suffering A Lack Of Air Service

This is really hitting home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas and St. Croix are islands and people rely on flying to get between the two.

  • Cape Air, which provided the primary air service between the two, has cut its operation to the bone due to lack of pilots.

  • Seaborne Airlines, the other main carrier between the two slands, hasn’t been operating either. They are losing their government-granted monopoly on seaplane service.

  • A third airline, Seaflight, has only a single plane which had been grounded for mechanical reasons.

There are still scheduled flights, though mostly with zeroed availability, and often only a couple of seats for sale per day with no guarantee flights will operate. The U.S. should welcome foreign-owned and operated air carriers to provide service where U.S. airlines aren’t willing to do so.

Restricting Service To U.S. Carriers Is Corporate Welfare

Foreign aircraft cannot carry passengers strictly between points in the U.S. and foreign persons cannot own more than 25% of a U.S. airline. U.S. airline ownership rules are among the most restrictive in the world.

The requirements were enacted in the Air Commerce Act of 1926 and the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, and have largely remained the same since then. A “citizen of the United States” is an individual U.S. citizen, a partnership whose members are U.S. citizens, or a corporation or association organized under U.S. law where at least 75 percent of the total voting interest is owned and controlled by U.S. citizens.

The reasons used to justify foreign ownership restrictions 100 years ago included “protection of the then-fledgling U.S. airline industry” (but these restrictions have lasted a century!); “regulation of international air service through bilateral agreements” (we impose restrictions as leverage for negotiations, but we’ve never given in on this through negotiations); “concern about allowing foreign aircraft access to U.S. airspace” (but foreign aircraft fly through U.S. airspace to all the time and foreign airlines must seek permission for this in any case – we don’t allow Pakistan International Airlines for instance); military reliance on civilian airlines to supplement its airlift capacity (but we pay for this through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet subsidies program).

Rules against foreign ownership of U.S. airlines and cabotage – foreign airlines operating on U.S. domestic routes – are basically protectionism for US airlines which keeps fares high and limits choice at the expense of consumers, and by limiting competition we also let airlines get away with offering inferior products. One blogger incidentally reported Avianca for selling award flights on foreign carriers between the US mainland and Guam, sadly those itineraries are gone.

There’s no reason to offer hundreds of dollars per passenger in subsidies for inferior air service as a first-choice policy. While foreign ownership and foreign operation rules have little justification besides protecting private businesses from competition, at a minimum we should invite foreign airlines to operate routes that U.S. carriers have determined are uneconomic. Let those carriers either try to make it work or burn their own capital instead of picking taxpayer pockets, while providing better service options to U.S. air travel consumers.

U.S. airlines will fight this of course because they do not want foreign airlines to gain a foothold here, demonstrating the lie in their arguments against the service, and showing that consumers can have better options than they provide.

We Subsidize Routes That Make Far Less Sense Than This One

The Essential Air Service program was created in the late 1970s as a temporary measure to soften the blow of deregulation. It’s a perfect example of the old axiom that there’s nothing as permanent in life as a temporary government program. The legislation included a ’10 year transition’ period in which small community service could receive subsidies. This was supposed to end in 1988.

The program subsidizes flights to over 150 communities, a third of which are in Alaska. Most of the planes fly largely empty, and the cost of the program per actual passenger are greater than for Amtrak. In many cases the airports receiving subsidies are drivable to other airports where subsidies aren’t needed to sustain air service. Spending on the program has quintupled over the past 25 years.

Yet St. Thomas and St. Croix don’t have drivable alternate airports.

The U.S. Should Invite Foreign Carriers To Operate Between St. Thomas And St. Croix

St. Thomas and St. Croix are part of the U.S. and U.S. rules that restrict pilot supply are choking off the ability to connect the islands by air. Subsidizing the routes would only draw pilots away from other cities, redistributing service rather than increasing it in the short term. Why not invite foreign airlines to operate the route – and others where U.S. airlines do not wish to offer service?

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