Canceled flights; parked jets: airlines struggle to keep up with demand during chaotic summer travel season

Airlines and passengers are going through a chaotic post-pandemic phase that has seen the industry struggle to keep up with growing demand, leaving many passengers unhappy with everything from their ticket prices to aggravation over whether they will reach their destination.

Demand for flights jumped this summer to levels not seen since before the pandemic. Data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) shows 2.45 million people passed through airports nationwide on Friday, the highest one-day total since Feb. 11, 2020.

Yet this demand is met by a shortage of supply.

Airlines have cut millions of seats from their summer schedules, driving up prices. They have delayed and canceled thousands of flights, and hundreds of planes remain parked despite high demand. Some small airports have lost their commercial flights entirely.

Passenger numbers on the Friday before Father’s Day and June 16 nearly broke pandemic records, but on the same day airlines delayed more than 8,900 US flights and canceled nearly 1,500 others, according to FlightAware.

Explanations for the struggle range from pilot shortages to high fuel costs and even extreme weather conditions.

The madness caught the attention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who met with airline executives Last week. Buttigieg County said Thursday that complaints about air service increased by more than 300% in April compared to the same period in 2019.

“The demand is as high as we’ve ever seen, people want to get out and travel,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said at the company’s annual meeting earlier this month. . “The key is just sizing the airline to the resources we have.”

Airlines have received billions of dollars in stimulus from the federal government to preserve payrolls during the pandemic, but companies have still resorted to pension buyouts and hiring freezes as demand plummets, exacerbating this which many in the industry saw as an existing pilot shortage.

With flight demand now returning, many airlines say they are struggling to attract pilots, leaving hundreds of planes idling with no one to fly them. The Regional Airline Association estimates that airlines would hire an additional 8,000 pilots if they were available.

Commercial carriers are now downsizing, over the past six weeks removing a combined 5.66 million seats from their U.S. departure schedules in July and August, according to data shared by Flight Data Inc.

“We don’t have enough pilots to fly all the planes,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in December, as the airline ruled out 100 planes. .

American Airlines announced earlier this month that it would also park 100 planes due to pilot shortages.

Many industry players report high barriers to entry into the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots to fly hundreds of hours before working for an airline and mandates retirement at age 65. A spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) told The Hill he was considering introducing legislation to raise the retirement age. .

But the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest pilots’ union, sent its members to meet lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month, pointing to figures showing the country has recently started producing more pilots again. certified than before the pandemic.

“The United States is producing a record number of pilots, but some are still trying to argue that we need to weaken aviation safety rules to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” ALPA President Joe DePete said. in a press release.

ALPA-affiliated pilot groups have seen success in recent weeks taking advantage of airline labor needs, with many negotiating substantial raises.

Many airline employees complain of working longer hours and experiencing more last-minute trades. Workers cannot easily go on strike under federal regulations, but have expressed their discontent in other ways.

Alaska Airlines pilots voted overwhelmingly to simply allow a strike last month. Last week, Delta Air Lines pilots penned an open letter to customers. Off-duty Southwest Airlines pilots picketed Texas.

Regional carriers, which operate flights marketed by major airlines from smaller airports to major hubs, have been among the most desperate to retain pilots.

The pilot unions of three regional carriers 100% owned by American Airlines – Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines – recently announced contractual agreements that include “significant salary increases”.

Ric Wilson, vice president of flight operations at Envoy Air, told The Hill that the airline mainly had problems with the loss of its captains to larger carriers, the first in command of planes that face stricter requirements.

Wilson said the regional airline agreed this month to increase new pay rates and give pilots an additional 50% bonus for two years, after Envoy lost 80 pilots a month.

“Since we announced them, we’ve already seen it start to taper off and slow down,” Wilson said. “So we’re very hopeful that the structure we’ve moved to will help us retain these pilots in the future, rather than losing them to some of these other carriers.”

Regional Airline Association (RAA) President Faye Malarkey Black told The Hill that beyond salary increases, policy changes are needed to increase fairness in the hiring pipeline, such as the resizing student loans and broadening training pathways.

“Compensation alone doesn’t solve this problem because it doesn’t solve the underlying barriers to career entry,” Black said. “People without wealth can’t afford to train for this career because student loans don’t match the cost of a pilot’s college education.”

As regional airlines scramble to increase their pilot numbers, many have resorted to cutting service to smaller airports. Forty-three airports will lose more than 50% of their commercial service in the second half of this year compared to the equivalent period in 2019, according to Flight Data Inc.

Some have lost their commercial flights entirely. American Airlines announced on Tuesday that it would discontinue regional service to Dubuque, Iowa, leaving the airport without another marketing carrier.

The reduction marks the fourth regional airport that has lost all commercial flights since late 2019, according to Flight Data Inc.

Richard Howell, executive director of Williamsport Regional Airport in Pennsylvania, told The Hill that the airport lost commercial service in September.

Howell said he believed demand for commercial services was now strong enough to return, but airlines have so far declined due to high oil prices and pilot shortages.

“As long as these jets are in the desert, markets our size will be challenged to restore service,” Howell said.

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