Saturday, Mar 2, 2024

What made air travel so bad?

Two years ago, travel plunged off the cliff. Now, passengers are back on planes in numbers that resemble pre-recession passenger volumes. It's not fair that the airline industry and those who are pursuing long-postponed travel plans shouldn't be celebrating. It's not so. The Great Travel Rebound was a complete disaster two years later.

According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, between January and May 2022 88 161 domestic flights in the United States were cancelled. This is 16.116 more cancellations than those made during the same time period in 2019. 2020 was the only year that saw more cancellations in the first five months than any other decade. American, Delta and United were the main carriers responsible for cancelling the most flights. They also carry the highest passenger numbers in the United States.

"While the demand landscape and revenue landscape [are] among the most favorable we've ever seen, the operational environment remains uniquely challenging," Ed Bastian, Delta CEO, stated during the airline’s quarterly earnings call earlier in the month. Bastian offered his sincere apologies to those affected by delays, cancellations and long wait times in the past two months.

Between January and May, 23.5 per cent of flights were delayed. This is a slight increase over the previous 22.1 percent delays. The most striking indicator has been the rise in passenger complaints. The U.S. Department of Transportation received 4,344 complaints regarding air travel service in May 2022. This is a 237 percent increase over the 1,289 complaints received at May 2019. One-third of those complaints were about refunds and 24 percent concerned cancellations, delays and scheduling issues.

Scott Keyes (founder and chief flight expert at Scott's Cheap Flys) says that there is a justified anger among many people about the increased number of disruptions to travel plans. It is quite upsetting to have the trip disrupted by cancellations or major delays.

Keyes says that airlines will likely say they are "optimistic in face of uncertainty" about how many flights they can manage by 2022. Keyes notes that it was easy to plan the flight schedule in non-pandemic periods, as the previous years provided a good guideline for how booking patterns might be.

It has not been possible to use data from previous years to make scheduling decisions for next year. It is much harder to make educated guesses now than it is to make them.

Delta will maintain its flight capacity at the same level as it was in June to address the operational challenges. United announced last month that it would eliminate 50 departures daily from its Newark schedule starting July 1, and continuing through the summer. This represents a 12 per cent reduction in its hub's flight schedule. Other airlines have also responded to the surge in demand and the delays and cancellations that have followed by cutting back on scheduled flights. JetBlue Airways reduced its summer schedule by 10% this spring. In an effort to minimize disruptions, Alaska Airlines reduced its June flights by approximately 2 percent. Southwest Airlines also reduced its June schedule by approximately 8,000 flights, following the cancellation of 14,500 flights in March and May.

The pandemic's lingering effects

Laurie Garrow, professor of Georgia Institute of Technology, president of AGIFORS (a non-profit organization that focuses on airline research), explains how we came to 2022.

Garrow says that global demand fell by 90 to 95 percent in March 2020. Garrow says that this is the first time we have seen such a drastic and sustained drop in demand. You have to make tough decisions about how to keep your airline running and minimize your expenses in such a drastic drop in demand.

U.S. airlines weren't allowed to lay off employees in order to receive $54billion in federal pandemic assistance. However, they were permitted to offer buyouts or early retirement bonuses and thousands of workers received the money. Airlines also stopped hiring during that period, effectively cutting off the potential pipeline of new pilots and crew members who would be needed for travel.

"That pause in hiring and that shedding pilots on staff means that [the airlines] were left flatfooted when travel demand came back." Keyes says that they were left with inadequate staff and are trying to fill the gap.

The airlines aren't the only ones lacking pilots. All aspects of air travel are affected by a staffing shortage, including baggage handlers at airports and crew members for air traffic control (these latter are employed by the Federal Aviation Administration in America). This has led to the well-documented, long lines at airports, and mountains of lost baggage.

In addition to staffing problems, thousands of aircraft that were retired in 2020 are being brought back into service.

Garrow says that by May 2020, half of the U.S. airline industry's aircraft fleet had been parked. "Never before has our industry taken half of our system's capacity," she says. She also notes that about 25% of the total capacity of the aircraft fleet was reintroduced to the system in 2021 and that "we are on track to get all of it back in 2022."

Airlines have had to manage a high-demand environment and a limited supply in the interim.

What was the point of selling seats to airlines if they didn't have enough staff or resources?

One has to wonder if airlines didn't do the math one year ago when flights started to book up and they began scheduling flights and selling seats. They couldn't have predicted that they wouldn't be able to sell as many flights in a year.

Airlines create their schedules according to the demand they anticipate and their resources. Robert Mann, an analyst and consultant at R.W., says that for every ticket that airlines sell in advance, they have the proceeds that they can use to pay people this calendar year, buy fuel for tomorrow's flights, or pay for plane deposits. Mann & Company, Inc.

Bastian, Delta's CEO, admitted that airlines had tried too hard to make up two years of pandemic losses. He also said that they were over-ambitious when there was high demand. In an interview with The Associated Press, he stated that "we probably pushed ourselves too far."

Keyes says that when airlines saw the demand for flight service returning, they tried to make it as easy as possible by making their schedule as optimistic as possible. Keyes believes that this was partly because they lost not only the pilots and crew who were essential to flying the planes but also more experienced staff in corporate offices that could handle the complexity of planning future flight services.

He gave the example of a junior employee who managed airline scheduling in 2021. This person likely noticed that travel was on the rise and that booking rates were high.

Keyes states, "Are they going to have the maturity to say, I'm going to not sell as many flights I would like to because we're not sure we can operate them?'" You try to make the most money and then you hope that other parts of the airline will figure out this pilot shortage and are going to be able to fulfill this optimistic schedule you created and for which there has been travel demand. Evidently, that has not been the case.

Worse, many air travelers are paying more for the unpredictable and sometimes disappointing 2022 air travel experience. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that airfares in the first quarter of 2020 were 17 percent higher than those of the previous quarter of 2021 when adjusted for inflation. According to the U.S. Consumer Price Index, June marked the beginning of a decrease in airfares month-over month.

When will air travel become more efficient?

After a difficult first half of the year, there are signs that airlines are starting to improve. According to FlightAware, cancellations of scheduled flights have dropped to just 1.6% in July, as compared to the 2.7 percent recorded in June.

Airlines are using creative methods to quickly replenish their staff. American Airlines raised the pilot pay of its regional airlines that are understaffed by 50 percent in June. Delta announced last week that it had partnered with Wheels Up, a private jet operator, to enable pilots in its training program log flight hours with Wheels Up. This will allow them to get a faster path to full-time employment. Delta stated that it plans to train and hire more than 2,400 pilots in the coming year.

However, it can be difficult to recruit pilots in today's world.

A pilot who flew a Boeing 787 Dreamliner told me that he was lucky to be able to keep his job during the pandemic, flying long-haul cargo flights instead of passengers. Although he didn't want to be identified because he is still flying with an international carrier, he said that the current reality for pilots isn’t ideal, even for those who survived the pandemic.

"Airlines want to sell tickets for the lowest price to get people to fly. This is a problem because. . . He says that salaries are a major part of any budget. While there are many incredible benefits to being pilot, such as flying to and spending time in beautiful destinations around the globe, a lot of the glamour is being lost. Crew and pilots are being kept in "worse and more dangerous hotels." It is changing how much time you have between flights. The time between flights is getting shorter and shorter.

He also said that those who become pilots today will never earn the same as the pilots who flew in "the glory days of the '80s or '90s".

Observers are positive that there will be less turmoil in the months ahead, despite the remaining hiring and recruitment hurdles.

Garrow says, "I am cautiously optimistic that within the next month [airlines] will improve the operational performance, and be in a strong position for heading into fall." While inclement weather is always a problem for air travel, Garrow says that the 2022 experience has been a valuable learning opportunity for airlines and will result in inevitable improvements in service.

Mann, an air analyst, sees air travel woes leveling off by next year. He notes that 2023 is likely to be a year of resolution, but it's not a comfort for those whose flights were canceled this year.

Keyes admits that there may be some bumpy days ahead but he wants travelers to see the bigger picture. Keyes says that "the vast majority of flights still operate," and that this is why he hopes people don't abandon a vacation they've planned for months because of flight cancellations or delays. Keyes reminds travelers that they have the best chance of achieving their dreams.

Fliers should still buckle their seatbelts even though airlines are adding staff. The government is hiring more air traffic controllers and more baggage handlers to reunite checked bags with their owners. There might be some bumps in the road.

During the United CEO Scott Kirby's earnings update last Wednesday, Kirby stated that "We must face three risks which could grow over the coming 6 to 18 months." These risks include "industry-wide operational problems that limit the system’s capacity, record fuel costs, and the growing possibility of a global economic recession."

Reporting by the Associated Press was also contributed by