A national pilot shortage will likely delay any chance at a direct flight between Duluth and Denver until 2023.

In July, when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the airport a $750,000 grant to help establish the route, airport officials had hoped for flights between Duluth and Denver, a major hub to destinations on the West Coast, to begin next year.

But a pilot shortage is making it difficult for any airline to add new routes, or even staff current routes.

“I think the crew shortage issue has made launching in ‘22 less likely,” Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, said in an interview with the News Tribune on Wednesday. “It’s much more likely that we’re looking at a 2023 launch of that service.”

Through 2040, North America will need 130,000 pilots and even more technicians and cabin crew members, aircraft manufacturer Boeing said in its Pilot and Technician Outlook 2021-2040.

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Although the pilot shortage preceded COVID-19, the pandemic worsened it.

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, airline passenger numbers nosedived. Airlines grounded planes, laid off employees and offered buyouts.

“Many junior pilots lost their jobs last year, leading some to change careers and leave the industry altogether,” Boeing’s report said. “Concurrently, many experienced pilots accepted voluntary early retirement packages, and those that remain will be unable to fly for commercial airlines once they reach the mandatory retirement age.”

As passengers return to flying, airlines have struggled to find enough staff to accommodate them.

Locally, United Airlines once operated up to three daily non-stop flights from Duluth to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. But throughout November, it will fly just one per day, bumping up to two flights per day in December. Earlier this month, the airport said the cause was pilot shortage, not passenger demand.

That pilot shortage is making it difficult to secure an airline for the long-awaited Denver route.

“So we need a carrier that has the pilots and the aircraft ready to fly in 2023,” Werner said. “And we're talking to a couple right now and we’ll talk to a couple more here in the weeks to come in hopes that we keep this in front of them.”

The grant is designed to “mitigate the startup risk” to any airline looking to start a new route at a smaller airport, Werner said. In addition to the grant, the airport secured $250,000 in matching pledges from the community for the $1 million project, including $100,000 from the city of Duluth and $75,000 from St. Louis County, the News Tribune has previously reported.

The airport currently offers daily non-stop flights to Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. In December, Sun Country will begin offering twice-weekly flights to Fort Myers, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona, through mid-April.

The current flights are, in a way, a test for airlines looking at adding other routes out of Duluth.

“It's not a chicken-and-the-egg argument — what comes first, passenger demand or the airline?” Werner said. “We have to demonstrate the demand and a business case in order for the airline to be successful and to take a chance on us. That doesn't happen without people coming into our doors and supporting the local product.”

Leisure, not business, travel is returning

After a steep decline in airline passengers passing through the Duluth International Airport at the onset of the pandemic — from 25,111 in February 2021 to just 1,243 in April 2021 — numbers have steadily increased but still remain behind pre-pandemic figures.

In September, the most recent month with data available, more than 23,500 passengers flew in and out of Duluth. That’s down about 20% from September 2019 and almost 9% from 2018 figures.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Similarly, national figures also reflect that. U.S. airlines are still moving 20% fewer passengers in September 2021 compared to the same month in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Locally, most of the travel has been for leisure, while business travel, which has long been the “backbone” for the airport, has not fully recovered, Werner said.

“This particular virus and the pandemic as a whole has constrained travel — certainly has depressed travel demands,” Werner said. “But I'm happy to report that it's starting to come back and so I think there is a segment of the population that is learning to live with the virus to some degree, and for them, that means that their travel habits will resume.”

Werner credits the vaccine with increasing passenger numbers.

Looking ahead to 2022, he said the airport conservatively estimates passenger numbers will remain about 15% below 2019, which the airport is using as a benchmark.

“I think if business travel returned strongly in either Quarter 1 or 2 across the country, we could be above that,” Werner said.

It would still be an improvement over 2021. Werner forecasts the year will end about 30% below the 2019 passenger count.