MIAMI — Regional airline SkyWest is flying a bit lower these days. The carrier has “capped” operations for its CRJ-200 aircraft at 28,000 feet and the larger –700/-900 variants at 35,000 feet as of late June. The move is, according to some, a new “company policy,” while other sources are suggesting it is a restriction imposed by the FAA related to pilot training issues and recent incidents at higher altitudes. The new “policy” was put in place on June 22, and also establishes minimum speeds for the flights. A reported copy of the letter sent to pilots suggests that “strict monitoring will be accomplished by our OCC and the FAA.”
And, perhaps most bizarre, is that the company pilots are not talking (publicly) about the situation at all. One ATC controller noted that the SkyWest Chief Pilot is refusing to discuss the situation with controllers, though the ATC group was provided a “written note that they are operationally restricted.” Still, when ATC is offering higher altitudes more commonly used by the aircraft, SkyWest pilots are declining them, choosing to stay at the lower, less ideal flight levels.
SkyWest operates more than 1,800 average daily departures for United Airlines, American Airlines, US Airways, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines. Thus far the impact on operations seems to be mostly a fuel efficiency one; flight times are not changing. But the reduced efficiency can have a significant impact on fuel burn and capacity. And with higher summer temperatures, as well as higher demand, the reduced efficiency may eventually have real repercussions for passengers. On some of the longer CRJ-200 routes out of Denver, for example, weight restrictions may come into play with the “hot & high” departure conditions and the lower altitude cap reducing the available range. The restrictions are also likely to impact passengers as it limits the ability of pilots to fly over bad weather. And with summer storms, caused or exacerbated by the hot weather, that’s not likely to be much fun for those on board.
And then there’s the question of why this change has been implemented. SkyWest is not doing this to save money operating its flights, which means it is likely tied to safety or regulatory concerns. That has to be slightly troubling as a customer, especially with the carrier remaining tight-lipped on the issue so far. No public reports of issues, either, but a lot of rumblings and insinuation out there. Combined with the company action it does not look especially positive.