American Airlines says it could take 3 years to get back to full nationwide capacity

American Airlines said Thursday it could take up to three years to get back to full, nationwide capacity due to what it said was an ongoing pilot shortage.

CEO Robert Isom told investors that demand for air travel is at record levels, but that the airline’s travel schedule remains impacted by supply chain disruptions and staffing shortages that worsened during the pandemic.

As a result, Isom predicted that restoring flight capacity across its main routes will take about a year. “I think it’s dependent on the supply chains of aircraft manufacturers and ultimately, pilot supply to get all back in sync,” the CEO said.

On the other hand, American Airlines’ regional routes will be tougher to stabilize.

“From a regional perspective, it’s just going to take a little bit longer than that, maybe 2 or 3 years, to kind of get the supply chain for pilots back to where we need it to be,” Isom said.

American Airlines chief financial officer Derek Kerr said the carrier flew with 8.5% lower passenger capacity during the second quarter of this year than in the same period in 2019, despite what he called record numbers of travelers. The airline posted its first quarterly profit since the start of the pandemic on top of a 12.2% gain in revenues, at $13.4 billion.

Air travelers have been living through a summer of what some have called “airmageddon” that has seen passengers pay record amounts for airfare only to be met with delays, cancellations and lost baggage at every turn.

In response, US Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to act. Sanders said airlines should refund passengers for flights that are delayed more than an hour, provide alternative transportation for passengers who experience delays of up to four hours, and furnish meals and lodging for those who are delayed even longer.

Sanders also said airlines should face fines for flights delayed more than two hours and for flights scheduled without proper staffing.

Most major airlines already offer travel and lodging vouchers and other concessions to passengers experiencing flight delays.

Buttigieg has met with airline executives amid the challenges.

The airline industry’s staffing and capacity issues pre-date the pandemic. Several years ago, the industry projected it would need far more planes and more pilots to accommodate what it expected to be a surge in airline travel.

The pandemic threw a wrench into the industry’s expansion plans as planes were grounded, orders for new planes were paused and travel restrictions were enacted.

The US government provided billions of dollars during that time to help airlines stay afloat, and while planes remained grounded, thousands of airline employees, including pilots and flight attendants, retired or received buyouts, largely prompting what is now an industry-wide employee shortage.