Record Las Vegas Tourism Numbers Threatened by Dwindling Airline Pilot Supply

Posted on: May 1, 2017, 03:21h. 

Last updated on: May 1, 2017, 05:20h.

Isn’t it ironic: while visitors are flocking to Las Vegas in record numbers, that upswing could be affected if an airline pilot shortage, spurred by major changes in the commercial carrier industry and diminishing military training to supply captains, is not corrected in the coming years. In fact, the problem is so dire that no one in the gambling mecca’s marketing arm is sneezing at its potential impact.

Southwest Airlines McCarran pilot shortage Las Vegas
Passenger traffic at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas has increased steadily over the years, but an ongoing commercial pilot shortage could jeopardize projected tourism expansion. (Image: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun/AP)

According to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Nevada is 200 airline pilots short of the 1,554 needed to keep up with the Silver State’s tourism demands. It is part of a nationwide trend that a University of North Dakota survey released last year projected will lead to a 14,439 pilot shortfall for US airline operations over the next 10 years.

“It’s a real issue for any city that relies on tourism,” Louis Smith, president of Henderson-based Future and Active Pilot Advisors, a professional pilots advisory organization, told the Las Vegas Review- Journal recently. “If the shortage becomes bad enough, then airlines have to cut back on certain routes. There would be less flights per day, and [airlines] may even have to pull out of a city.”

The deficit is caused by a variety of underlying realities. One of those is a rash of retirements. In 2007, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) changed the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 to stem the rising numbers of pilots leaving the industry, but those numbers are trending upwards again and it is now estimated that about 500 commercial pilots retire every month.

Another problem for commercial carriers is worker dissatisfaction. Allegiant, one of the airlines that regularly flies into Las Vegas’ McCarran International, saw a survey by union members saying more than half its pilots were looking for another job.

Finally, the US military, itself shrinking in size, is retaining more of its aviators  with incentives who would otherwise transition to civilian carriers.

No Abatement to Las Vegas Tourism

McCarran has grown exponentially from when it opened in 1942 as Alamo Field, welcoming a total of 12 daily flights. It is now the eighth-busiest airport in the nation, and for the first three months of this year, saw 48,416 arrivals with 5,657,874 passengers.

That’s helping to bump the number of patrons who come to Las Vegas. The gambling mecca has seen a steady increase in the number of people occupying the city and March was the second-best month in the city’s history, with 3.78 million individuals, only behind July 2016’s 3.83 million.

The numbers have risen every year since 2013, and in 2016, Las Vegas saw 42.9 million arrive to gamble, watch shows, eat, and shop. And for the first quarter of 2017, there were 4.8 percent more customers at casinos and hotels than for the same time period last year.

All those visitors translated to more revenue for the city. In March, aided by the NCAA Tournament, sports books and their ancillary gaming and entertainment beneficiaries, saw $991 million statewide (with the majority of that being in Las Vegas), a jump of 7.4 percent from March 2016.

McCarran International Commercial Airline Carrier Arrivals, January-March 2017

Southwest           17,893

American             3,633

Delta                     3,334

United                   2,806

Spirit                     2,751

Allegiant               2,180

Frontier                1,672

JetBlue                 1,345

Virgin America   1,167