Pilots at Horizon Air, the Portland, Oregon-based regional subsidiary of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group, have publicly blamed Alaska management for service cuts and aircraft deferrals.

In a public letter published as a full-page ad in The Seattle Times, the executive committee of Teamsters Local 1224—the Portland affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) union representing Horizon’s pilots—said the pilot shortage Alaska management has cited for preemptively canceling hundreds of Horizon flights and deferring deliveries of Embraer E175 aircraft is not the “full story.” While acknowledging the reality of the pilot shortage, which the union leaders say is driven by the time and cost required to become a commercial airline pilot in the US, the letter writers accuse Alaska management of failing to “seriously” prepare for it, imperiling the future of Horizon. The airline has canceled 1,300 flights in September and October combined, citing the pilot shortage.

“The pilot shortage at Horizon Air was not unexpected,” the letter stated. “And, despite what you may have heard, it did not take management at Horizon and Alaska Air Group by surprise. Horizon management has been aware of the pilot shortage since 2012 or earlier, with internal managers, external advisors, and union representatives sounding the alarm about the likely impact to Horizon and Alaska Air Group. For reasons we do not understand, neither Horizon nor Alaska Air Group took these warnings seriously.”

Horizon operates a fleet of more than 60 aircraft, a mix of E175s and Bombardier Q400s.

The union leaders noted that Alaska initially sought pay concessions from the pilots to cope with the shortage, which the pilots “reluctantly” accepted in exchange for Horizon being the exclusive provider of Alaska Airlines’ regional flights on new aircraft with at least 30 seats. But Alaska later acknowledged that had been the wrong response and raised pilot pay earlier this year, the pilots said.

“These [pay increases] were too little, too late; the damage had already been done,” the pilots wrote, adding, “We are concerned that Horizon and Alaska Air Group, from an inability to recognize market conditions, are endangering not only the livelihoods of Horizon’s many hard-working employees, but also the economic viability of Alaska Airlines.”

The pilots said “short-term fixes and knee-jerk responses”—including contracting new E175 flying on SkyWest Airlines aircraft—“only make the situation worse, both for Horizon and for Alaska Air Group.” Management needs a “long-term plan” to address the pilot shortage, the union leaders wrote. This should include financing “pilot training in a meaningful way, with union involvement and help to make new pilot training successful,” the pilots said.

In response, an Alaska Air Group spokesperson told ATW: “We had a challenging summer at our regional airline, Horizon Air. We believe that growing demand for air travel has contributed to the industry-wide pilot shortage. We failed to see and respond to this change fast enough, which resulted in scheduled reductions and some flight cancellations.”

The spokesperson said Alaska has taken “numerous steps” to address the situation, including increasing pilot recruitment efforts, raising Horizon pilots’ pay to “industry-leading levels” and offering new Horizon pilots signing bonuses. “Also, to speed up the introduction of new pilots into the Horizon operation, we’re doubling the size of our training department,” the spokesperson said. “We’re well on the way to returning to the reliable on-time service our [passengers] deserve.”

Aaron Karp aaron.karp@penton.com