Moneybox

The Air Travel Mess, Explained

The post-COVID mess has been multiplied by several other factors.

Passengers wait at Rome's Fiumicino airport, sitting looking despondent, one with her hand over her face.
Passengers wait at Rome’s Fiumicino airport during a strike by workers of some airline companies, which forcibly canceled hundreds of flights in Rome on July 17. Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

Thousands of canceled flights and tens of thousands of lost bags. Hours-long waits to clear passport control and security. Countless summer plans turned upside down, and not even over a missing Covid test. In Manchester, a pilot loaded the bags onto the plane himself.

Everyone knows air travel is a mess right now. Mostly, that’s because the industry is dealing with the same problem that the rest of the economy is facing: a staffing shortage prompted by a tight labor market and a quick rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Advertisement

But there’s more to the story. Several factors conspire to make flying particularly vulnerable, and this summer’s unbounded sense of crisis—from customs to check-in to pilot training, from Amsterdam to Los Angeles—is a great illustration of that. “It’s the entire gamut,” said R.W. Mann, an industry analyst and former airline executive. “It’s the unusual case where it’s industry-wide and global. I’ve been doing this for 45 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Of course, the airline industry is no stranger to the occasional meltdown: The last time Mann and I spoke was in 2018, when a bomb cyclone sent JFK spinning into days of chaos. Air travel is a tightly coordinated system with many moving parts, one that runs with little slack during the peak summer travel season. Storms, staff shortages, or simply mistakes can prompt domino effects that snarl thousands of travelers. In this respect, air travel is more interconnected and vulnerable than other labor-challenged industries. Nobody ends up sleeping by the soda machine because half the team called in sick to Chipotle.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The problem, everyone agrees, began when air travel cratered during the global lockdowns to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Airlines downsized, cut flights, and offered buyouts to senior staff. The third-party contractors that handle much of the day-to-day airport grind (over 800 companies at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport alone) laid off workers en masse, as did airports themselves and the retailers and restaurants that operate within.

While last year saw passenger numbers rebound after vaccinations, TSA checkpoint traffic was still down by about 25 percent on 2019 numbers that summer. But with billions in federal aid under their belt, U.S. airlines set an ambitious schedule for summer 2022. All signs pointed towards a big peak travel season, with Americans back to work and Covid in the rearview mirror.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Then reality hit, in the form of both short-term chaos and long-term adjustments. On Memorial Day Weekend, for example, airlines canceled more than 7,000 flights worldwide. Meanwhile, airlines such as Alaska Airlines and Delta belatedly trimmed summer schedules. Southwest dropped 20,000 flights. JetBlue cut almost one in ten scheduled flights, despite travel demand, leaving ticketholders high and dry: Even if they got a cash refund from the airline, they were stuck buying new tickets at the last minute. “If I ever had a planner that said, ‘I blew it by 10 percent,’ I’d have to ask the guy to just leave, that forecast was unsuitable for the purpose of running a reliable airline,” said Mann, the industry analyst.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The reason for these long-term adjustments was clear: Staffing shortages. Most importantly, virtually every airline says it is short on pilots. American Airlines parked 100 planes for lack of pilots. Pilot unions have complained of being overworked—Delta pilots say they’re on pace to fly more overtime this year than 2018 and 2019 combined . Airlines want to hire 13,000 pilots this year and again in 2023, but United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says it will take five years for the shortage to abate. Even the U.S. Air Force is having trouble. We may need a third Top Gun to get them over the hump.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The airlines are partly to blame for this: They got $54 billion in federal aid to maintain their role as vital national travel infrastructure, and simultaneously urged a bunch of experienced workers to retire. Delta, for example, encouraged 2,000 pilots to accept buyouts back in summer 2020. But there’s also fallout from a more general disruption that has affected professions such as lifeguards: Training programs stopped or slowed during the pandemic, messing up the talent pipeline.

Advertisement

Pilots are only part of the problem, anyway. “Pilots is the big picture, but it’s not affecting the day to day,” observed Ned Russell, an aviation journalist for the Skift. Airports and airplanes are also struggling to fill other roles, from baggage handlers to airplane mechanics. While pilot shortages have forced airlines to crimp their schedules, it’s shortages in other professions that is causing day-to-day mayhem.

Consider the Transportation Security Administration: It’s one of the lowest-paid federal jobs around. Despite hiring bonuses and incentives, the TSA is having trouble filling its posts. According to Government Executive, the agency is 30 percent below its targeted staffing level and asking scanners to work six days a week.

Advertisement
Advertisement

While airports, airlines, and contracting companies can—and are—raising wages and recruiting for new staff, they can’t hire them as quickly as Amazon does, because so many airport workers require a security clearance. As everyone tries to staff up simultaneously, clearance processors are overwhelmed, and what used to take a few days can now take a few weeks.

Advertisement

So you’ve got your new flight attendants, call center staff, and plane refuelers in the door. Now you need to tell them how to do their jobs. New bottlenecks ensue.

Take Delta, which has been hiring like crazy, picking up 18,000 new employees since the start of last year. The company now sits at 95 percent of pre-pandemic staffing—but only 85 percent capacity, thanks to training backups .“The chief issue we’re working through is not hiring but a training and experience bubble,” CEO Ed Bastian said on an earnings call this month. In happier times, when he was boasting about replacing trained and highly paid workers with new and inexperienced ones, Bastian called the savings “the juniority benefit.” Turns out there’s a juniority cost, too.

Advertisement

At Alaska Airlines, it’s the same story: “Pilots were stuck in the school house,” CEO Ben Minicucci said in April. And sometimes they really do get stuck: The journalist Ned Russell told me a pilot friend being retrained as a captain for American Airlines had to wait six months to get slotted into a course.

United, for its part, says it has hired enough pilots. After getting chewed out by DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg last month, the Chicago-based carrier, along with Frontier Airlines and the U.S. airline trade group Airlines for America, has tried to put the blame for recent debacles on the FAA and air traffic control. The FAA says nation’s control towers are merely in a training bottleneck of their own, though in any case, most delays originate with airlines themselves.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The infrastructure problem is worse in Europe, where airports have had to resort to telling airlines to stop selling so many tickets. Heathrow, for example, has said it will limit daily departures to 100,000 travelers through mid-September. Deciding how to cancel a quarter-million tickets between dozens of airlines fell to a company called Airline Coordination Limited, which helps airports manage plane traffic.

Delta recently made headlines when it flew an entire A330 from London to Detroit with nothing but 1,000 lost bags on board. Juniority problems. But the only reason Delta had to get an empty plane to Detroit in the first place was because Heathrow’s restrictions forced them to cancel the flight. (For passengers, anyway.)

Advertisement

“Summer is for airlines what Black Friday is for retailers,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “To see [airports] ask airlines to accept a dwindled schedule, that’s akin to Walmart saying, ‘We’re not going to open this Black Friday.’ It’s unthinkable.”

But it’s also a response to some crazy scenes that played out earlier this summer, including days when fliers waited for hours just to drop their bags or go through security. Dublin and Amsterdam were also beset with problems. Overall, European countries didn’t offer much state aid for carriers during 2020, so rehiring has been longer and slower. The boss of the baggage handling contractor Menzies Aviation told the WSJ that the biggest bottleneck was background checks, which took two to three months per new employee. In the UK, it now takes 3 months to procure a security badge for a new employee, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And while U.S. airlines have dealt with sporadic demands from labor unions, tensions in Europe have been higher and strike actions have led to cancellations in cities like Paris and Hamburg.

Finally, perhaps we air travelers deserve some blame as well. Though the notorious mask-related disruptions have retreated from view, airports are flooded with new or out-of-practice fliers. Seasoned business travelers have yielded to vacationers who are less familiar with the demands of the TSA. Every traveler that sends their bag through the metal detector full of liquids is a traveler that is holding up the line. And then there are the unruly passengers, said Christine Negroni, an aviation journalist and the author of The Crash Detectives. “People have forgotten how to behave.”

Advertisement