As the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and demand for bottle travel for US airlines translates into the strongest summer since the pandemic, the many massive flight cancellations are creating chaos among their customers.
U.S. airlines have canceled more than 21,000 flights, or about 2.7% of the planned total number since Memorial Day holiday weekend in May, nearly double last year, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Flight delays are also greater than in 2021.
Analysts and some industry leaders see no meaningful improvement until the fall, when travel demand tends to decline.
On Tuesday, Delta Air Lines warned of another round of disruption over the weekend of July 4, with passenger traffic expected to be at its highest since the pre-pandemic. To mitigate the impact, it allows customers to rebook their trip for free.
The Atlanta-based airline has canceled about 5% of its scheduled flights in the last two weeks due to personnel, weather and air traffic control (ATC) issues.
The industry’s struggle to ensure operational safety despite repeated assurances shows that the problems that hampered air traffic last summer have not yet been resolved.
Airlines are still struggling with staff shortages after letting thousands of pilots go in 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now they have aggressively recruited staff, where for example both Delta and United Airlines recruit 200 pilots a month. However, some industry experts expect a shortage of pilots in the coming years due to limited training capacity.
“They have brought people back … but getting these people productive in the operation is a very difficult task,” said aviation analyst Robert Mann. “You can’t just bring someone in from the street and put them to work. You have to train them.”
Staffing problems have made it harder for the industry to increase its capacity. U.S. airlines have cut 15% of their summer plans, according to Airlines for America, a trading group.
Admittedly, it is not just an American phenomenon. Airlines around the world are struggling with a labor market crisis that threatens to limit post-pandemic recovery.
“Airlines fly with planes they can manpower, not necessarily the most profitable or most popular routes,” said Peter McNally, Global Sector Lead for Industrial Materials and Energy at research firm Third Bridge.
LIMITED CAPACITY, LESS MARGIN
Meanwhile, demand for air transportation is rising despite the growing risk of an economic recession in the United States. Passenger traffic in the United States has averaged about 89% of pre-pandemic levels since the Memorial Day holiday, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Airlines expect a further increase in traffic this holiday weekend. United Airlines estimates that its passenger numbers will be 94% of the 2019 level. Budget company Frontier expects to have the highest traffic in its history.
Strong demand and limited capacity are driving up both air fares and revenues. But with most planes running close to full capacity, airlines have less margin to deal with flight disruptions.
Industry experts say the high summer travel season is often stressful for airlines. But staff cuts at the height of the pandemic have made the problem “more acute,” said aviation analyst Robert Mann.
American Airlines said it has added 12,000 new employees in preparation for the summer travel season. It also flies fewer planes than last summer.
Still, the cancellation rate is higher than last summer. The airline blames the air traffic control and the weather for its problems.
“America’s largest and busiest hubs have been hit, which has rippled throughout our operation,” a spokesman for the airline said.
Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle also attributed flight delays and cancellations to inadequate ATC personnel and an increase in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ground delay programs used to regulate the volume of air traffic.
Biffle said the program has increased tenfold compared to 2019.
In a letter to US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg last week, Airlines told America that ATC’s personnel challenges disrupt flights even in good weather. She asked the FAA to make adequate staff available and reduce airspace closures.
The FAA said it has added alternative routes, placed more controllers in high-demand areas and shared more data. To avoid airspace shutdowns, no launches of spacecraft are planned during the Fourth of July holiday, according to the FAA.
However, the agency has called back the airlines to cut the number of staff at the height of the pandemic.
“When people buy a plane ticket, they expect to arrive at their destination safely, efficiently, reliably and affordably,” the FAA said in a statement.
“After receiving $ 54 billion in pandemic assistance to help save airlines from mass layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve to have their expectations met.”