Shortage of pilots, fuel prices and Covid: American airlines prepare for a tumultuous summer

On recent Friday night, Laura Waring had to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to San Diego to help organize her healthcare information technology company’s conference, which was scheduled to begin the following Monday.

But after her flight was repeatedly delayed and then canceled, Waring slept about 45 minutes on a bed at Newark airport before waking up cold and unsure of how she would get to California.

This was only the beginning of his troubles.

And according to travel industry experts, Waring’s experience is unlikely to be unique among people traveling in the coming months. Over Memorial Day weekend, there were more than 2,800 cancellations and 20,644 delays among US airlines, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Experts see this as an early indicator of a turbulent summer travel season due to a shortage of pilots; increase in consumer demand; a recent increase in fuel prices; and disagreements over which Covid-19 restrictions should remain in place.

“We’re really seeing revenge travel – people who have had two years of pent-up demand and want to get out and travel,” said Matthew Howe, senior director of travel intelligence at Morning Consult, a market research firm . “On the other hand, I think we’ve seen that some [airlines] may struggle to keep up with demand.

The number of airline pilots and engineers fell from 84,520 in May 2019 to 81,310 in May 2021, a decline of nearly 4%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the country will need more than 14,000 new pilots every year for the next decade, according to the bureau.

“Pre-pandemic labor shortages have accelerated, particularly for technicians and pilots, who have long entered careers in fewer numbers than those retiring,” Regional Airline said. Association, a professional group, in its 2021 annual report.

That shortage means people looking to travel this summer will likely have fewer options than before the pandemic, according to Michael Taylor, head of the travel intelligence practice at JD Power, a consumer research firm. For example, before the pandemic, airlines may have had hourly departures to major hubs like Chicago and Atlanta. Now they will only happen every 90 minutes and planes will be busier, he said.

Airlines will “redeploy a larger fleet with fewer city destinations in their flight system,” Taylor said.

Fewer thefts and a shortage of staff translate to less slack in the system, Taylor explained. Whereas before the pandemic an airline could have crews in an airport on standby in case of an unexpected event, airlines don’t do this as much because they need these staff on flights.

Then, when a storm hits and delays a flight, there may be no replacements for the scheduled crew members, whom the Federal Aviation Administration only allows to fly a certain number of hours each day.

Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union for American Airlines pilots, said the airline was loading pilots’ schedules “to the absolute maximum”.

“When you schedule with very little buffer because you have disproportionately assigned your pilots to backup duties, it is very expensive and very inefficient, and it ultimately leads to a less reliable operation,” Tajer said. .

Airlines are adapting to new challenges. Delta announced on May 26 that it would cancel 100 daily flights from July 1 to August 7 around the United States and Latin America.

“More than ever in our history, the various factors that are currently impacting our operations – weather and air traffic control, supplier staff, rising Covid case rates contributing to higher than expected unplanned absences in certain workgroups – results in an operation that doesn’t always live up to the standards Delta has set for the industry in recent years,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, in the announcement. .

Alicia Johnson. Photography: photo provided

Alicia Johnson, a 28-year-old mental health therapist, was due to return to Detroit from Minneapolis after her cousin’s wedding on Memorial Day weekend when she received a notification Sunday morning that her Monday morning flight had been cancelled. She was rebooked for a three hours later.

“It just added stress for us to have to rearrange transportation, but also to have back-up plans for what would happen if that one was also canceled or if they overbooked it,” said Johnson, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

She and her fiancé decided not to take the same trip with Delta for another wedding in July.

It wasn’t just because of the cancellation. Johnson also flew in April, shortly after the federal government lifted its mask mandate for airplane passengers. She continued to wear her mask because of family members with autoimmune disorders. During the flight, she felt like the Delta crew were celebrating the end of the masking requirement.

“People still want people to wear masks,” Taylor said. “You go to any airport and they have the ads overhead, ‘You should wear a mask,’ and you look around and about half the people are.”

Johnson isn’t the only one with a disappointing travel experience. JD Power said customer satisfaction with air travel in March 2022 was down from the same period a year earlier.

Taylor attributes this change to the increase in passenger numbers.

“It’s a great flight when you’re on a 737 and there are only 10 people on board. When there are 220 people on it, it’s a different experience,” he said.

Johnson also saw the cost of her round-trip ticket to Minneapolis go from $297 in May to $578 in July, she said. The average round-trip ticket price in the United States in April was $585, the highest in seven years, according to Airlines Reporting Corp.

“I think with tickets as expensive as they are, with inflationary pressures hitting people’s budgets, people really expect airlines to perform and deliver the services they promised” , said Howe, of Morning Consult.

Waring, the healthcare IT company’s executive sales coordinator, was able to leave Newark on a United Airlines flight at 8:30 a.m. on May 21, 13 hours after she left.

And the flight was to Los Angeles rather than San Diego. His luggage hadn’t taken the flight either. This meant that she not only had to drive two hours to San Diego, but also drove to a Target to shop for clothes. And when she finally got her bag back, the handle was broken. She kept receipts of her purchases and hopes the airline will reimburse her.

Fortunately, they were still able to prepare for the conference, which went well, said Waring, 47, who lives in Budd Lake, New Jersey.

She still plans to fly with United in August to Florida for a family vacation.

The bad experience “definitely won’t stop me from booking a flight,” Waring said. I’m just going to “make sure I have a good sized carry-on that has a few essentials in it”.

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