Less than a year after its celebrated arrival in Baton Rouge, Via Airlines has suspended all flights to and from Baton Rouge.
The airline switched to seasonal service to Orlando, Florida, after Mardi Gras and has cancelled traffic between Baton Rouge and Austin, Texas, until the end of May, authorities confirmed Monday. The flights between the cities were happening twice a week, on Sunday and Thursday.
Service to the Texas capital has been spotty of late. Last month, LSU's baseball team had to take a seven-hour bus ride back from a series with the Longhorns after their flight was cancelled.
Via needs time to train a new class of pilots, said Don Bowman, the company's director of planning and business development.
Four applicants have completed their ground training but need time in a simulator and must complete their line check before becoming official Via pilots who can help restore regular service, Bowman said.
Via has another four-member class starting soon, as the company plans to expand into Pittsburgh and Hartford, Connecticut, in June and July, he said.
Baton Rouge Metro airport spokesman Jim Caldwell said airlines are facing an "industry-wide pilot shortage that's particularly challenging for smaller carriers.
“They’ve got a new class of pilots about to finish up and an additional one after that,” Caldwell said. “Rather than try and make it work, when they knew it was going to be a challenge, they suspended a few weeks of flights until they get their hiring back.”
Companies like Via are "at the bottom of the food chain" when openings give pilots a chance to fly larger aircraft at bigger companies, Bowman said. The Austin-Baton Rouge route was not the only one impacted, he said.
Via has plans to resume service to Austin on May 23. The airline has blacked out online ticket purchases for dates until then. Bowman said the company will offer full refunds to customers who have already bought tickets. Via is trying to tell all ticket-holders that service has been cancelled for nearly two months, but typically it alerts passengers of refunds two weeks out, Bowman said.
Via arrived in Baton Rouge in September with routes to Austin and Orlando on 50-seat planes. In February, the company announced it would cut back on service to central Florida following Mardi Gras.
Direct flights between Baton Rouge and Orlando, Fla., will be going seasonal after Mardi Gras due to lackluster passenger numbers.
Caldwell said the airport gave Via some incentives on a flight-by-flight basis, such as waiving landing fees and giving them a break on rent. "There was no upfront money given to them," he said.
With a focus on family travel, Via has indicated it will resume flights starting in June through August or September. While the hiatus on Austin flights was blamed on pilot shortage, the officials have said the Orlando flights were struggling to draw customers and averaged only about 45 percent capacity.
"Hopefully, when they resume those flights, the market will the there for Via Airlines to consider extending those Orlando flights," Caldwell said.