Reviews | Air travel is in chaos – and there are no easy solutions

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If you’ve traveled a lot by plane in recent months, chances are you’ve encountered difficulties: flight delays and cancellations, lost luggage, massive queues for check-in and security. Commercial air travel is in disarray and, unfortunately, there is no quick fix in sight.

According to flight tracking company Flight Aware, in the past two months, 2.2% of US carrier flights have been canceled and 22% – or 260,000 flights – have been delayed. The trend is by no means limited to the United States: 52.9% of flights departing Toronto Pearson International Airport were delayed between June 1 and July 12; London’s Heathrow Airport, where 40% of flights have been delayed, has announced it will limit the number of departing passengers to 100,000 per day.

Much of the problem stems from an industry-wide labor shortage. After the aviation industry was decimated in 2020 by covid-19, US airlines received $54 billion in pandemic aid. Overestimating the time it would take for travel to resume, they offered retirement packages to older employees and granted many workers temporary furloughs. Now they are struggling to train and certify new pilots fast enough. Federal data suggests that airlines were the main cause of flight delays in the United States from January to May and are responsible for a significant number of cancellations.

However, the airlines are not solely responsible. Most organizations working in air transport have had to downsize or suspend hiring in 2020. This has led to shortages of airport staff, baggage handlers, security, and more. Employers try to hire and train workers quickly, but many airport positions require security clearances. The air traffic control system also experienced staffing issues in some high-volume areas, caused in part by covid-19 outbreaks and a halt in training before vaccines were available. Because air travel is deeply interconnected, problems at an airport can lead to delays and cancellations downstream, overwhelming the system.

Some lawmakers have called on the Department of Transportation to use its consumer protection powers to crack down on airlines. In fact, the ministry has opened 20 investigations into airlines for failing to effectively refund refunds. Authorities must enforce the rules if some have been broken, but investigations take time and may not always produce the desired results.

At a meeting in June, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged airline executives to ensure summer flight schedules were up and running. Airlines, to their credit, have cut schedules by 16% since the spring and flight cancellations have fallen since mid-June. Yet this does not address longer-term capacity issues.

Airlines, airports and authorities must work together to resolve the structural problems revealed by the unrest this summer. Pilot shortages were a concern even before the pandemic. Carriers and the federal government should find ways to reduce barriers to accessing training programs and certification, which are time-consuming and expensive. It’s also time to take a hard look at recruitment and retention in airport and ground services, often low-paying and labor-intensive jobs with unattractive hours.

The airline industry, like much of our economy, was unprepared for the disruption caused by covid-19. By acting now, it could be more resilient to future crises.

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