This is going to be a tough summer for U.S. airlines. They are scheduling more flights than the system can handle as passengers show a near insatiable appetite for tickets. The last thing they need to be doing is joining the pass-the-buck club between airports and governments.
Skift Editor-at-Large Brian Sumers writes this column with a critical eye on the important global issues impacting the airline industry, from the middle seat of the last row in economy class to the boardrooms of the world's largest carriers.
In recent weeks, many airlines in Europe and the United States have failed their customers, selling itineraries they can’t fulfill. Airlines have run a quasi-normal schedule despite far from normal conditions, and passengers have been treated to cancelled flights and delayed bags.
You might think airlines and their representatives would take ownership of their miscues. Or at least tell them that they’re aware of the issues, as they try to solve them. Some have, but many others have played the blame game. They pass the buck onto air traffic control, airport operators, governments, and the ultimate boogey man, weather.
It’s time to stop the blame. Yes, when the air travel system falters, people want answers for why their summer vacation is ruined. But this is different. Airlines have gone from the worst demand in their history to the strongest. The system isn’t designed for such swings, and it’s succumbing under pressure.
This summer’s meltdowns are being caused by several factors, all attributable, directly, or indirectly, to this once-in-a-century global pandemic, which is not yet over, no matter what some want to believe. As Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told CNBC this week, “the system is rusty.”
Perhaps that’s an understatement.
The first problem is staffing. Yes, in the United States, the government required airlines receiving aid to retain any employee who wanted to stay, even when few passengers wanted to fly. Urged by labor unions, politicians wanted to ensure airlines would be ready when travelers returned.
But do you know how depressing it was to work at an airline in 2020? In the United States, thousands of employees quit or took early retirement, leaving airlines short staffed at call centers, airports and at headquarters. Some pilots close to retirement age called it quits, too. Many airlines chose not to replace every worker who left, so they could save money. Now, airlines are hiring, but not fast enough.
Then there’s Covid-related issues. Pilots and flight attendants are still getting sick, and when they do, they can’t return to work for several days. In some cases, airlines calculate they have all the crews required for on-time performance, only to field more sick calls than expected.
The second problem is training. Both new pilots and pilots returning from leave must train for weeks before they can fly passengers. In addition, when pilots switch from one type of airplane to another, they must return to training. Those switches have been happening more often recently, as airline retired some aircraft during the pandemic, forcing pilots to retrain on new equipment. Also, at some airlines, the expected replacement planes haven’t come as fast as planned – Boeing has had production delays — leading to a problem in which some airplane types have too few pilots and some have too many.
The pilot training problem is particularly vexing for some regional airlines. These carriers typically serve as informal training grounds for the pilots who go on to fly larger jets for bigger airlines. Normally, regional airlines lose pilots at predictable intervals. But larger airlines are so short staffed now that they’re raiding regional carriers for pilots. With too few pilots in the short term, regional carriers have been forced to cancel flights, either in advance, or just before departure.
Third, we can blame the government, at least a little. U.S. airlines say they’re facing air traffic control issues in the Northeastern United States and parts of Florida, which bleed into the rest of the country as airplanes are routed from one region to another. They say it is worse than usual, noting the FAA is understaffed. The FAA is hiring, but as with pilots, training takes time. TSA is generally better, but there have been reports of long lines at some airports.
The final problem is you, dear passenger. Travelers are buying summer plane tickets at nearly unprecedented rates. When an airline puts the flight on sale for peak summer travelers, passengers are buying tickets, almost no matter the cost. Airlines know they’re stretched but they see money to be made, and they take the chance. If the weather is perfect, air control is efficient, and pilots don’t call in sick, the extra flight will operate on time. If not, we’ve seen what happens.
A traveler might blame airlines for adding flights into a system that’s already bursting at the seams. But remember, airline fares are a function of supply and demand. If airlines cut supply, fares shoot up. If passengers think fares are high now, wait until they see what would happen to fares if airlines targeted a 85 percent on-time performance.
What about weather issues? Maybe you saw an American Airlines spokesman tell USA Today, “The vast majority of that is weather-related,” as he discussed American’s woes last weekend. Other airlines have made similar statements.
Sorry, airlines. Summer thunderstorms in New York, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago and Houston are normal in summer An operationally sound airline plans for them by adding slack and recovering quickly after the storm passes. Either an aircraft can be dispatched late, or passengers can be booked on another flight.
The problem is there’s no slack. When bad weather hits and crews are out of position, or out of duty time, airlines don’t have backups sitting in reserve, like normal. And since almost every seat is sold, many airlines lack other flights on which to rebook passengers.
When will it end?
By August, students in some areas will return to school. As demand ebbs, airlines will add more flexibility into the system. By Labor Day, this should all be a distant, if painful, memory.
Until then, there’s no reason to play the blame game. There are too many factors at play to pin these troubles on just one issue.
Photo credit: Congested East Coast Airports, such as Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, are susceptible to long delays. funky-data / Getty Images