You’d be forgiven for feeling at least a little bit frustrated with airline companies these days. Following a difficult 48 hours last weekend, during which over 1,500 flights were cancelled, Monday brought yet more bad news for travelers, with approximately 800 planes grounded across the United States, including 128 United Airlines flights and 57 from American Airlines.
This sadly continues the pattern of travel delays and disruptions that many Americans have already been experiencing so far this summer, as airlines struggle to cope with the huge rise in passenger demand following a near-total grounding of commercial flights during the pandemic.
And while travelers are understandably frustrated at all the missed meetings and flights home to their families, it’s hard to see how any of this could have actually been avoided.
In 2020 domestic air travel fell by 59%, while international air travel was down 70%. The six largest airlines in the U.S. lost a total of $35 billion in the first year of the pandemic alone. In order to stay afloat, airlines obviously had to make changes to their staffing levels. Bankruptcy wasn’t an option, as even after cuts many thousands of jobs would still rely on the airlines – not to mention all the stocks, savings and pensions invested in the companies’ futures.
Aided by a $54 billion rescue package from the federal government, airlines worked tirelessly with unions and other employee groups to find the best possible solution. Some carriers, such as Delta Air Lines and Southwest, managed to continue operating without furloughing a single employee involuntarily. Instead, they negotiated a raft of employee buyouts and early retirement packages which saw many workers leave the industry for good, including large numbers of experienced pilots who were nearing retirement age.
However, the prolonged effects of the pandemic, with its endless series of variants and yo-yoing restrictions, then made it incredibly difficult for airlines to plan for the future. While it may have been easy to predict that the end of travel restrictions would be accompanied by a boom in passenger demand, no one could say with any confidence when that end would be.
Now that travel boom is here and airlines are understandably struggling to keep up with their reduced staff numbers. Around the world, the problems are the same, with airlines in the United Kingdom canceling thousands of flights since May and potential strikes by carriers including British Airways set to cause further chaos. Likewise in Germany, Lufthansa sent an email to their customers on Monday apologising for the difficulties faced by passengers over the summer and citing challenges including the post-pandemic travel boom and the war in Ukraine as aggravating the situation.
Earlier this month Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, explained that the problem was universal, stating, “"When you stress-test the airline operation model, that's when you see the same results”.
In the U.S. this global issue is being exacerbated by a number of compounding factors, not least the weather. Over the weekend storms along the East Coast severely affected operations for several carriers, with American Airlines being particularly badly hit. These summer storms not only delay operations at the airports where they are situated but also have a knock-on effect for the entire network, as a plane grounded in Boston, for instance, can’t get to Los Angeles on time for its next flight to Miami.
Covid, too, remains a large factor at play, with many airline staff having to take time off sick as the disease continues to circulate in still relatively large numbers. In an online post, Delta Air Lines’ Chief Customer Experience Officer Allison Ausband explained the impact that these combined issues have on the airline’s ability to operate:
“More than any time in our history, the various factors currently impacting our operation — weather and air traffic control, vendor staffing, increased Covid case rates contributing to higher-than-planned unscheduled absences in some work groups — are resulting in an operation that isn't consistently up to the standards Delta has set for the industry in recent years," she wrote.
The post also points to issues with air traffic control as being yet another factor which is worsening delays. Like the airlines themselves, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which staffs all air traffic control towers, is also dealing with severe worker shortages brought on by Covid and layoffs during the pandemic. Airlines for America, the industry group which represents commercial airlines, said this understaffing had ‘crippled’ traffic along the East Coast last weekend and has demanded that the FAA publish its plans for 4th of July weekend so that carriers can plan accordingly.
In a letter to Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Nick Calio, president of Airlines for America, said, “We have observed that FAA (air traffic control) staffing challenges have led to traffic restrictions under blue sky conditions”. He therefore called on Buttigieg to address staffing issues at the FAA in order to allow airlines to fulfil their obligations to passengers.
While the problems that have gone into causing this summer’s travel chaos were in many ways baked in from the start, that’s not to say that airlines aren’t doing everything in their power to help remedy the situation. From June until August, carriers are dropping 15% of their originally planned flights in an effort to even out their service and avoid last minute cancellations. Airlines including Delta, American Airlines and United are also hiring approximately 200 pilots a month to make up for the shortfall in qualified operators following the pandemic.
These solutions will take time to kick in and passengers will understandably be frustrated if they’re left waiting for hours at the departure gate over the next few months. However, with the airline industry still pulling out from its pandemic nosedive, it will take just a little bit longer before things can go back to normal.