Air travel sucks right now, and it’s only going to get worse — for at least the summer and probably for the rest of the year. The travel industry, particularly airlines, has been short-staffed since last year and struggled to accommodate the 2021 summer and winter holiday travel surges. Airlines and airports, both domestic and international, are still scrambling to fully staff up, which makes them more vulnerable to delays.
Over the last weekend of June, hundreds of flights flying into, out of, or within the US have been canceled every day, according to the FlightAware tracker, while thousands faced delays. On Wednesday, June 29, there were over 5,800 delays and 639 cancellations for flights landing within or departing from the country. The rates of delays (20%) and cancellations (3.5%) are abnormally bad compared to previous years, with the exception of 2020.
Last year, I reported on how airline industry executives have blamed such inconveniences upon bad weather and the labor shortage, a nebulous phrase that offers little explanation as to why airlines are unable to summon back tens of thousands of crucial workers: “A shortage does little to acknowledge the fluctuations in work consistency and lack of financial security that many have contended with. The industry has long relied on an understaffed and underpaid workforce, with many clocking in on the front lines (which, again, are unusually stressful these days).”
In April, the US government lifted the federal mask mandate for travelers and crew members. Many flight attendants have expressed relief at this change in policy, although reduced masking could lead to more Covid-19 infections among crew members, potentially exacerbating the staffing shortage. No US airline has publicly reported increased Covid-19 infections among staff since the mandate has dropped, but EasyJet, a budget European airline, did cancel hundreds of flights in March and April due to “higher than usual staff sickness levels” from a Covid-19 surge in Europe.
Airports and airlines have managed to bring back more security agents, on-the-ground workers, and crew members since 2021, but the most pressing issue seems to be the shrinking number of available pilots. A pilot shortage has been forecasted since 2018 and 2019, but the pandemic expedited the issue, since thousands of older pilots took buyouts when airlines shrunk their workforces in 2020.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 new pilots become licensed to fly every year, ABC reported, but US airlines were hoping to add at least 13,000 pilots this year. There simply aren’t enough people signing up to be pilots to meet current demand, Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told NPR: “It takes 60 to 90 days to interview, hire, and put a pilot through training. So the airlines have to be very proactive, and … everybody’s competing for the same shrinking pool.” Some airlines are also currently in the process of negotiating new contracts with their pilot associations.
Bad weather has also thrown airlines into a tailspin. By running a tightly planned operation, an airline might not have enough staff to deploy when unpredictable weather requires them to switch up schedules. Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, crew members also aren’t allowed to work overtime or exceed the set maximum number of working hours per day. Delays can bleed into these working hours and, as a result, potentially reduce the number of staff available to work.
This is why some carriers have resorted to suspending certain routes and cutting flights out of their summer schedule. In May, Delta announced it would cut back on 100 flights daily between July 1 and August 7 to “relieve pressure by proactively thinning the schedule.” JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest have also preemptively reduced their summer flight capacity, mostly domestic routes. More recently, United announced it will cut 50 flights a day out of Newark starting on July 1, and American plans to drop service to four cities in September due to a shortage of regional pilots.
Airlines are on average still flying fewer daily flights than they were in 2019, even though travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels. This means travelers have fewer options, but will likely pay more for their flights due to increased demand. Airfares are up 37.8 percent in May compared to the same period in 2021, according to the Consumer Price Index. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the price of jet fuel (and gas) has also gone up. The New York Times, citing data from the flight booking app Hopper, reported that the average domestic airfare was $330 in March, a 7 percent increase from 2019.
Politicians have begun to call upon the Biden administration to exert pressure on airlines, who some believe are booking too many flights they’re unable to staff. Sen. Bernie Sanders called on the Department of Transportation to fine carriers $55,000 per passenger “for every flight cancellation they know can’t be fully staffed.”
In short, don’t expect much when you fly. Travelers can certainly pay more for a better travel experience, but regardless of whether you’re flying first-class or basic economy, no one can buy their way out of a delay or cancellation. Money makes things easier, especially since airlines still seem keen on nickel-and-diming their customers for the smallest conveniences, like a seat selection or a checked bag. Regardless, air travel will likely be a messy obstacle course of indignities for the foreseeable future.