Flights are being cancelled, prices are increasing, travel is being disrupted, and there’s talk of strike action - what more can go wrong? Passengers across the country are being left confused and frustrated, with many being stranded and begging the question, “what is going on with air travel and what are airlines doing about it?”
In short, everyone is doing pretty much everything they can do to sort out the situation, but it’s not an overnight fix. The entire transport industry is struggling.
Taking a step back and looking at the airline industry as a whole over the past two years, it’s clearly been a very turbulent journey. Covid-19 hit and global travel was halted completely; planes were grounded and that vacation you had been looking forward to was cancelled. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, airlines engaged in painstaking negotiations to minimise the effects on their staff, offering early-retirement packages and generous pay-outs for voluntary redundancies. Delta and Southwest Airlines were notable in this regard for not furloughing a single employee involuntarily.
Months go by and slowly air travel begins to pick up, but people are, understandably, cautious. Yet, soon most restrictions are removed and passengers are keener than ever to fly away and forget the past two years.
Having been buffeted by the pandemic the airline industry is now trying to keep up with this surge in demand from an almost standing start. Despite instituting massive hiring drives, staff levels remain one of the major issues in the airports and on planes, with many workers having moved to other sectors during the pandemic.
Now some airlines, notably Alaska Air and United Airlines, are also having issues with those employees who remained on their books. Earlier this month, United Airlines was narrowly able to avoid strike action from pilots by offering renewed contracts with higher pay and other improvements (the exact details of the contract are yet to be released).
Alaska Air, meanwhile, proved less effective in de-escalating the situation and now faces imminent industrial action, with pilots voting to authorise a strike last Wednesday. While this does not mean that planes are currently grounded, if discussions with the National Mediation Board break down a strike could very much be on the cards. This situation is somewhat unique to Alaska Air, where pilots have been without a contract for three years and want greater flexibility.
The looming spectre of industrial action is the latest in an unenviable list of issues that airlines are having to tackle post-pandemic. The return to normal travel has already been plagued by a myriad of problems including poor weather and air traffic control issues, which resulted in delays over Memorial Day weekend. Added to this are the structural problems of rising fuel costs and continuing Covid-19 infections which result in further staff absences.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that airlines have had to cancel their flights to ensure the majority of services can still operate. Although not the ideal option, this solution at least ensures that schedules are stuck to and passengers can plan ahead.
Cancellations are not a long term solution but they do offer temporary relief for carriers to stabilise services and address structural issues, the main one being staff shortages. On this front, there is strong progress, with Delta Air Lines reopening applications for an additional 1,500 new crew members to start work by the end of this year. The airline reports that so far it has received 35,000 applications for the role of cabin crew alone.
The issues facing the US aviation industry are similarly being played out in airports across the world. This week, UK-based airline, Easyjet was forced to cancel 200 flights at the start of school vacations, causing chaos at London’s Gatwick Airport.
The solution, as is so often the case, is likely to be found in cooperation. When USTN interviewed former National Mediation Board Chair Nick Geale earlier this month, he said the collaboration between airlines and pilots' unions demonstrated during the early days of the pandemic served as a “model may be beneficial in developing a solution to any current issues.”
What’s clear is that the last thing the airline industry needs right now is more internal conflict. Airlines and pilots' unions should be prepared to pull together – as they did in 2020 – to ensure the industry as a whole can get through these difficult times. If they don’t, it will only prolong the chaos for weeks or even months longer.
Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press