Massive flight delays, cancellations prompt finger pointing
Airlines rack up unprecedented number of flight delays and cancellations just months after Congress awarded $ 54 billion to the industry so carriers can retain employees and facilitate a smooth return to air travel as the country emerged from the pandemic.
From July 1-6, JetBlue delayed 51% of its flights, Southwest Airlines delayed 39% of its flights and American Airlines delayed 34% of its flights, according to data from FlightAware. The setbacks came after major airlines canceled hundreds of flights this month to avoid further delays.
Industry experts said poor weather conditions had brought many of those flights to a standstill, but also blamed the almost unprecedented rise in delays and cancellations on a shortage of qualified pilots and airport workers.
“We are seeing a shortage of pilot training,” said Dennis Tajer, chair of the communications committee of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots of American Airlines. “The pilots are there, but their hands are tied because they are not fully trained and cannot fly yet. “
Major airlines have urged pilots to take leave or early retirement at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, believing that air travel will not rebound anytime soon. When government support temporarily dried up at the end of last year, airlines cut tens of thousands of jobs. American Airlines has laid off 1,600 pilots, making it the only major commercial carrier to do so.
Pilots are required to complete a rigorous training program before returning to the cockpit. Some pilots who have taken time off are still waiting to complete their training as airline instructors work to cope with the influx of returning pilots.
“Along with time off, early retirement, time off and parking over 100 planes, these are four epic points,” Tajer said. “It all converged into a training funnel that got very narrow, and the US leadership couldn’t adapt to that.”
A spokesperson for American Airlines said the company’s recalled pilots completed their training in late June and its delays in early July were due to weather events.
A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines blamed its delays on “prolonged and widespread thunderstorms and unrelated technological challenges” and said Southwest was the only major airline to maintain service at every U.S. airport it served before. the pandemic.
“We had staff for what we were flying and we were flying for what we had on staff,” the spokesperson said, noting that Congressional help was allowing the airline to maintain its workforce.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said last month that the United States could face a continuing pilot shortage because the U.S. military is not training enough pilots.
“The military is producing far fewer pilots today than it was during Vietnam and the Cold War, and it’s difficult to become a pilot – a commercial airline pilot on your own – if you don’t go through the military.” , he told Axios.
The labor shortage extends beyond pilots. The aviation industry struggles to find employees to clean planes, transport baggage, and manage reservations, among other roles.
Airlines have struggled to cope with the influx of summer passengers. More than 10 million travelers flew over the weekend of July 4, which is about 83% of travel volume from 2019, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
Airline and airport executives stressed that their businesses were not immune to the effects of a nationwide labor shortage. The United States posted a record 9.2 million job openings in May, according to Labor Department data released last week.
Airlines also argue that their ability to hire workers is hampered by their huge losses. A recent report by industry lobby group Airlines for America found that passenger airlines lost $ 5.5 billion in the first quarter of 2021.
“While this resurgence of domestic travel and the huge pent-up demand to soar is encouraging, there is still a long way to go towards recovery for our industry,” said Katherine Estep, spokesperson for Airlines for America. “Today, US airlines still spend $ 95 million in cash every day, in large part because business and international travel remains decimated.”
Critics point out that airlines and airports, unlike other hard-hit industries, have received government relief to keep their employees on the payroll. An investigation by Democratic staff members of the House coronavirus crisis subcommittee found that companies contracting with the aviation industry have laid off tens of thousands of workers despite federal aid.
Unions representing airport workers such as the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE have slammed the industry for contracting out jobs to contractors who do not negotiate with labor unions. They say low wages deter workers from coming back.
Airlines have become one of the only industries to benefit from special assistance under the $ 2.2 trillion CARES Act. Most of the major airlines increased their lobbying spending during this period to seek relief. Lawmakers have extended three rounds of airline relief, including $ 14 billion in wage assistance in March that will last until September.
Airlines and airports have come under scrutiny over their use of relief funds. A March New York Times analysis found congressional aid saved 75,000 industry jobs, but the effort cost taxpayers at least $ 300,000 per employee.
Yet even union leaders who have criticized the airlines say the government’s bailout was necessary. They say the return to air travel would have seen a lot more turbulence if Congress had not authorized multiple rounds of wage subsidies.
“It was clearly the right decision to make,” said Tajer of the Allied Pilots Association. “If this investment had not been made the way it did, we would have seen a collapse of the airline industry. “