US airlines shouldn’t get into the blame game for summer of travel chaos

In recent weeks, many airlines in Europe and the United States have let customers down, selling routes they cannot fill. Airlines ran a near-normal schedule despite far-from-normal conditions, and passengers were treated with canceled flights and delayed baggage.

You might think that the airlines and their representatives would take ownership of their mistakes. Or at least let them know they are aware of the issues as they try to resolve them. Some did, but many others played the blame game. They shift blame to air traffic control, airport operators, governments and the ultimate boogey man, the weather.

It’s time to stop the blame. Yes, when the air transport system fails, people want to know why their summer vacation is ruined. But it’s different. Airlines have gone from the worst demand in their history to the strongest. The system is not designed for such swings and it succumbs under the pressure.

The meltdowns this summer are caused by several factors, all attributable, directly or indirectly, to this unique global pandemic, which is not yet over, whatever some would like to believe. As Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told CNBC this week, “the system is rusty.”

That might be an understatement.

The first problem is the staff. Yes, in the United States the government required subsidized airlines to hold back any employee who wanted to stay, even when few passengers wanted to fly. Pushed by the unions, the politicians wanted to ensure that the airlines would be ready for the return of travelers.

But do you know how depressing it was to work in an airline in 2020? In the United States, thousands of employees quit or took early retirement, leaving airlines short-staffed in call centers, airports and corporate headquarters. Some pilots close to retirement age also called it. Many airlines chose not to replace all departing workers, so they could save money. Now airlines are hiring, but not fast enough.

Recent luggage storage at Heathrow Airport in London. Source: Joanne Varni.

Then there are the Covid-related issues. Pilots and flight attendants always get sick, and when they get sick they can’t go back to work for days. In some cases, airlines calculate they have all the crew they need to be on time, only to respond to more sick calls than expected.

The second problem is training. New pilots and pilots returning from leave must train for weeks before they can carry passengers. In addition, when pilots change from one type of aircraft to another, they must retrain. These changes have happened more often recently, as the airline retired some planes during the pandemic, forcing pilots to retrain on new equipment. Additionally, at some airlines, expected replacement aircraft have not arrived as quickly as expected – Boeing has had production delays – leading to a problem in which certain types of aircraft have too few pilots and crews. others have too much.

The problem of pilot training is particularly thorny for certain regional airlines. These carriers typically serve as informal training grounds for pilots who fly larger jets for larger airlines. Normally, regional airlines lose pilots at predictable intervals. But the major airlines are so understaffed that they are raiding regional carriers for pilots. With too few short-term pilots, 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. US airlines say they are facing air traffic control problems in the northeastern US and parts of Florida, which are spreading to the rest of the country as planes are routed from an area to another. They say it’s worse than usual, noting that the FAA is understaffed. The FAA is recruiting, but like pilots, training takes time. The TSA is generally better, but there have been reports of long lines at some airports.

The last problem is you, dear passenger. Travelers are buying summer plane tickets at almost unprecedented rates. When an airline puts the flight on sale for peak summer travelers, passengers buy tickets, almost regardless of the cost. Airlines know they are overwhelmed, but they see money to be made and they take the risk. If the weather is perfect, air traffic control is efficient and the pilots do not report sick, the additional flight will operate on time. Otherwise, we have seen what happens.

A traveler might blame the airlines for adding flights into a system that is already packed. But remember that airline prices are a function of supply and demand. If airlines cut supply, fares go up. If passengers think fares are high now, wait and see what would happen to fares if airlines were aiming for 85% on-time performance.

Sorry, airlines

What about weather issues? Perhaps you’ve seen an American Airlines spokesperson tell USA Today, “The vast majority of this is weather-related,” while talking about American’s woes this past weekend. Other airlines have made similar statements.

Sorry, airlines. Summer thunderstorms in New York, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago and Houston are normal in the summer. Either a plane can be sent late, or passengers can be booked on another flight.

The problem is that there is no slack. When bad weather hits and crews are out of position or off duty, airlines don’t have a reserve on hand as usual. And with nearly all seats sold out, many airlines are running out of other flights to book passengers on.

When will this end?

In August, students in some areas will return to school. As demand decreases, airlines will add more flexibility to the system. Come Labor Day, all of that should be a distant, albeit painful, memory.

Until then, there is no reason to play the blame game. There are too many factors at play to attribute these issues to just one issue.

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