Airline unions accuse SkyWest of evading safety rules by seeking charter status for flights

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SkyWest Airlines has requested that some flights be operated as charters. The unions accuse the company of trying evade passenger airline safety regulations.

SkyWest may not be a name that most travelers are familiar with, but this small carrier operates flights for American Eagle Express, Delta Connection and United Express. The Utah-based firm asked the U.S. Transportation Department to allow it to operate new charter flights under less restrictive rules, if they limit planes to 30 passengers.

Charter pilots are not required to have the same amount of experience as those who fly on regular airline flights. A rule passed by Congress in 2009 after a crash that claimed 50 lives required that most airline job candidates have 1,500 flight hours. They can get fewer hours if they are military veterans or hold a degree from a recognized aviation school. Charter pilots are also not required to retire by 65 like airline pilots.

Jason Ambrosi said that if the SkyWest scheme is approved, it would undermine the safety rules, reduce the level of flying safety, and provide taxpayer funds to the pilots.

SkyWest claims that charter flights are the only way to maintain service to smaller communities where major airlines have ceased to operate. SkyWest claims that 82% of the communities served by the taxpayer-subsidized Essential Air Service Program are only served by charters.

In a letter sent last week to Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg, Russell Childs wrote: 'We are committed to providing you with the highest level of safety, security, reliability, and service.'

Childs promised that SkyWest would surpass other charter operators - and some low cost airlines - in pilot training and rest rules, among other things.

SkyWest's charter operation is supported by several smaller cities. Salina, Kansas Mayor Michael Hoppock stated that SkyWest's Charter operation "represents the most effective way to maintain the service level our airport needs and deserves."

The Transportation Department is yet to announce a date for its decision.

SkyWest is opposed by unions that represent pilots, airtraffic controllers, flight attendants, and ground workers. Peter DeFazio is a former Congressman who was the chairman of a House Committee for many years and oversaw Transportation Department. He said that the SkyWest plan will 'roll back' the clock on safety regulations governing maximum work hours and rest periods between flights.

DeFazio stated that he did not see the move as a way of perpetuating safe service in those smaller cities and I saw it as a step backwards from one level in aviation. I don't think anything good will come out of this.

SkyWest employed approximately 13,600 people, including 4,700 flight crews, to start the year. The company operates 625 aircraft in the 50-to-76-seat range. The company intends to sell charter flights using 30-seat Bombardier Jets.

Pilot shortages have plagued small, so-called regional carriers. SkyWest announced last year that it would drop 29 United Express routes under the Essential Air Service Program due to a lack of pilots.

SkyWest Charter Plan has largely been ignored by the larger airlines.

American Airlines questioned if SkyWest, another charter airline, could benefit from a lower price than regular airlines if it followed the example of JSX. JSX passengers do not pay the Transportation Security Administration fee ($11.20 per round trip) because they don't pass through TSA checkpoints when leaving private terminals.

SkyWest has promised to use TSA-approved security.