Many are optimistic that travelers will flood back into airports and onto planes this summer taking long-delayed vacations. But that flood could hit some bumps as a national labor shortage threatens to hit many aspects of the flying experience.
Airlines are buoyant with optimistic outlooks for leisure travel this summer. In the U.S., many expect the number of vacationers to near or match 2019 levels during popular holiday periods, like July 4th, in the early innings of what could be a lengthy surge in leisure travel.
But while all these travelers are good for bottom lines, the rapid rise in numbers has created some headaches. In a foreboding sign, Seattle-Tacoma airport saw security queues stretching into a parking garage during busier-than-expected spring break travel in April. And as major airline hubs rebound quickly, many amenities travelers are used to — from concessions to airline lounges — remain shuttered.
“Just come to the [Atlanta] airport for a few hours to help with cleaning, wiping tables, running food, restocking food buffets, etc,” Delta Air Lines asked salaried staff at its Atlanta headquarters in a recent memo reported Bloomberg. The ask was part of an effort to make up for a staffing shortage at the vendor who normally provides those lounge services.
Airline vendors are not alone in their struggles. Trade group the American Staffing Association, which represents employment agencies, CEO Richard Wahlquist spoke of a broader labor shortage facing American businesses on Marketplace.
“We simply can’t source enough talent to meet current demand,” he said, adding that many potential workers are not ready to return to the workplace.
Airport security is one travel pain point where this labor shortage could be acute. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) only expects to be about halfway to its goal of hiring roughly 6,000 new airport screeners by the end of May, said spokesperson Lisa Farbstein. However, she noted that the hiring goal is for when traveler numbers return to pre-pandemic levels and not necessarily the expected summer surge.
At Seattle-Tacoma, airport spokesperson Perry Cooper said they are confident that higher TSA staffing numbers will allow them to avoid long queues this summer. The airport is also trialing a new program that allows travelers to reserve spots in security lines.
The TSA hit a pandemic-high screening 1.74 million people at airports across the U.S. on Thursday, its latest data show. While the most since March 2020, the number is still down about a third from 2019 levels.
But the fact that records are being set on random Thursdays in May raises concerns about preparedness for popular holiday weekends, including Memorial Day — the symbolic start of summer in the U.S. — in just two weeks time.
Security is just a first step for travelers when they fly. Once through, they want a clean concourse where concessions are open to buy coffee or a meal, or to relax in an airline lounge before their flight. And then, they expect their flight to be on time and operate smoothly.
Traveler numbers that are still well below pre-pandemic levels coupled with the national labor shortage are keeping many airport restaurants closed, said Rob Wigington, president of the airport concessions trade group the Airport Restaurant & Retail Association.
“Airport concessions business are now only 50 percent to 60 percent of 2019 levels, far short of what is needed to sustain these businesses and enable them to recover,” he said. Wigington did not indicate how quickly concessionaires could ramp up staffing if traveler numbers surge as expected.
Airlines are slowly reopening lounges — sometimes with extra help as at Delta — but many remain closed. American Airlines will have 27 lounges open by Memorial Day, and United Airlines 21 lounges by the end of June. However, that is still only around half of the number of lounges they normally offer travelers not including their still-closed premium Flagship and Polaris lounges.
And simply having the workers to fly ramped up schedules could prove challenging. In early April, a staffing shortage forced Delta to cancel flights and temporarily fill middle seats, which were supposed to be blocked until May 1. And American’s plan to fly its entire fleet by June has raised eyebrows at its pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association (APA), who are concerned that not enough staff will be trained in time.
APA spokesperson Dennis Tajer said the union is “very concerned” about having enough trained pilots to fly the schedule American has planned this summer. Crew training, which includes everything from re-certifying pilots who were temporarily furloughed in late 2020 to training them on a new type after the retirement of nearly 100 Airbus, Boeing and Embraer jets, is expected to continue through August.
“This is a light switch,” he said of air travel. “The light switch went off when the Covid pandemic hit, and now it’s on. It’s that quick.”
Airline workers were protected under the three federal payroll support bills that Congress has passed since the beginning of the pandemic. However, U.S. carriers still pruned their ranks through voluntary outs with the expectation that air travel would remain down for some years to come. Airline staffing was down 3.2 percent to 713,035 in March compared to 2019, according to the latest Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.
All of this boils down to what could be a tale of two travel experiences this summer. One where Americans are eagerly returning to the skies to take long-postponed vacations and see loved ones. The other where they face longer than normal security queues with many of the airport restaurants and concessions they are used to frequenting still closed or operating at limited capacity.
Airport trade group the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) spokesperson Scott Elmore had the typical words of advice for travelers: arrive early, plan ahead and pack smart when flying this summer.
Photo credit: Returning travelers could find busy airports with fewer than the usual number of amenities this summer. Chad Davis / Wikimedia