Pilot shortage to blame for summer travel headaches – USA TODAY

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  • 1. Pilot ranks thinned at most airlines early in the pandemic.
  • 2. Low staffing is causing airlines to cancel flights.
  • 3. Carriers are trying to staff back up as quickly as they can, but it’s a time-consuming process.

It’s been a tough summer for air passengers in the U.S.

Many days have seen thousands of flight delays and cancellations, and airlines are taking longer to get their operations back on schedule when things go wrong.

A shortage of pilots, while not the only reason, is a major factor. Airlines reduced staffing when demand for flights plunged early in the pandemic, and now they’re struggling to bounce back as people start traveling at pre-COVID frequencies again.

Why is there a pilot shortage?

How airlines responded to the pandemic drop in travel demand is the key driver of the current staffing issues.

“In April of 2020, aviation was down 97%. This isn’t a black swan, this is a flock of black swans that arrived for the aviation industry,” said Courtney Miller, founder of Visual Approach Analytics, an aviation data analysis firm. “As traffic fell off a cliff, the airlines did what they could to react to people not flying … there were a lot of decisions taken – furloughs, layoffs, retirements – that were incentivized.”

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Those steps helped airlines stay afloat financially during the worst of the pandemic slowdown, but meant they were ill-prepared in many cases when travelers decided to pack their bags and return to the skies.

“Despite prices going up, it appears people do not want to give up getting away for a week or two,” said Alex Cruz, former CEO of British Airways and current board member at Fetcherr, an AI firm focusing on airline pricing and revenue management. “The ramp-up in demand has been quicker overall than most airlines anticipated.”

Laura Einsetler, a commercial pilot, estimates that as much as 30% of her company’s overall workforce left during the pandemic. At least 10% of her airline’s senior pilots retired, she said. Pilots across the industry say they’re being stretched thin as airlines try to maximize summer schedules.

“You don’t build a schedule for clear skies, you build it for ‘how does it recover when things go wrong?’ ” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association and current pilot for American Airlines. “They are placing a ladle in our exhausted hands to empty the ocean of their mistakes.”

With staffing tight, airlines have struggled this summer to recover from operational disruptions. While a severe storm in years past may have thrown a wrench in flight schedules for a few days, for example, major weather events are having longer-lasting effects as airlines with smaller staffs take longer to get the employees on their roster back into position after disruptions.

What it means for travelers

For those planning to fly this summer, and even later into the year, things may remain unpredictable for a while.

Airlines have announced schedule reductions, cutting as much as 10% of their flights and ending service to some cities as they scramble to match their timetables to their staffing levels.

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“The most important thing for our customers to understand is we, the Delta pilots, understand their frustration, and we’re frustrated too,” Evan Baach, a Delta Air Lines pilot and spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) told USA TODAY.

He was interviewed during a protest in New York earlier this month, where about 50 pilots, mostly from Delta, were picketing to raise awareness about their work conditions.

“We are working a record amount of overtime. In fact, by this fall we will have worked twice as much overtime as we have in all of 2018 and 2019 combined,” Baach said. “It’s within the company’s control to adjust schedules and better match flying with the number of pilots that they have on staff.”

Delta previously announced a 3% reduction in its schedule beginning in July, and the airline and its pilots are currently negotiating a new contract.

In the meantime, experts say, there are things travelers can do to try to make their travel this summer go a little more smoothly.

“Book early morning flights. You want to schedule your flights at least a day or two ahead of time before any specific event that you need to be at, and just keep an eye on the weather. Maybe get travel insurance that will protect you from cancellations,” Einsetler said. She added it’s a good idea to have alternatives in mind if something goes wrong, and above all, to be flexible.

Miller agreed that flexibility is key, especially this summer.

“Just be kind and patient,” he said. “We’re talking about a labor shortage. The problem is with people who are not there, not the ones who are.”

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Will things be better in time for the holidays?

The fall and winter holiday travel seasons are expected to go a little smoother than this summer, according to experts, but airlines are likely still going to be working through some issues even then.

“Fall will hit and travel will subside, but airlines will continue recruiting at a fever pitch,” Miller, of Visual Approach Analytics, said.

Increasing staffing and learning from this summer’s struggles should allow carriers to fine-tune their operations for the winter, he added. “The airlines will know how much they need to pull back schedules to maintain operational integrity.”

Unfortunately for travelers, most experts also think airfares will remain high well into the winter.

How this gets fixed

It can take years to train new pilots from scratch, so it may be a while before airlines are fully staffed.

ALPA insists that the U.S. does not have a pilot shortage and that companies are creating the issues themselves by not offering competitive pay rates and work-life balance to entice qualified pilots into the workforce.

Regardless, it will take time to get the pilot roster and airline schedules to meet the current level of demand.

“The recruitment process, even though it’s started, is not able to keep up at the largest airlines,” Miller said, adding that airlines are racing to hire more pilots before service reliability and scheduling issues cause demand to fall off. He said he expects conditions to be more normal again by summer 2023.

Other proposals to address the pilot shortage include raising the mandatory retirement age to 67 from 65, and/or reducing the minimum number of flight hours commercial pilots are required to log in order to qualify in the U.S. At 1,500 hours, the Federal Aviation Administration has among the most stringent requirement for pilots globally.

It’s unclear if either of these ideas will become reality, and ALPA – the largest pilot union in the country – opposes them both.

How technology can help

The pilot staffing situation is the major bottleneck in the aviation industry this summer, especially in the U.S., but experts say it’s not the only pinch point for travelers.

“It’s not just the airlines, it’s the security agencies, and it’s not just them, it’s people who fuel the airplanes, it’s the TSA equivalents in Europe and around the world,” Cruz said.

For years, airlines have been rolling out tech options to help make things smoother for passengers. These include things like automated bag drop counters that Spirit Airlines has at some of its largest airports, and an app that American Airlines recently announced will be accepted by Transportation Security Administration agents in lieu of identification and a boarding pass.

Many airlines also allow customers opportunities to review their options or rebook their travel when something goes wrong through their own applications. But, Cruz said, the airlines still have a long way to go when it comes to taking full advantage of technology.

“The problem is during COVID, all of us have downloaded more apps,” Cruz said. “They’re teaching us what to expect from an online experience,” and the airline industry increasingly isn’t providing what consumers are coming to expect.”