Cancellations and delays caused by weather and staffing shortages, along...

Cancellations and delays caused by weather and staffing shortages, along with climbing airfares and longer security lines, could continue to make it tougher to get around, experts say. Credit: Barry Sloan

Last week's widespread flight disruptions might be a warmup for more of what's in store during this summer's travel season, experts said.

Cancellations and delays caused by weather and staffing shortages, along with climbing airfares and longer security lines, persist as airlines struggle to meet demand. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration screened 2,462,097 passengers on Sunday, the highest daily number since Feb. 11, 2020. That number still was down from the 2,632,030 people screened on the same day in June 2019, before COVID-19 hit the nation.

“It’s a perfect storm of conditions that have brought up what’s really a challenging atmosphere for travel,” said Zane Kerby, CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

During the Juneteenth holiday weekend, June 17-20, more than 26,000 flights originating or destined to the United States were either canceled or delayed, mainly due to weather, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking company. On June 17, 5% of flights were cancelled.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Flight delays and cancellations may not ease this summer.
  • Airfare prices in May shot up 37.8% over the last 12 months.
  • Several union officials want to hold airlines accountable for scheduling issues that have led to massive disruptions. 

The average cancellation rate nationwide so far this year is 3% compared to 2% in 2019, which was the busiest air travel year on record, according to FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot. 

"Anything over 1% starts to get problematic because airline delays and cancellations can begin to cascade, affecting the entire system," Bangs said. 

Airlines are having trouble bouncing back from weather and mechanical issues due to a staffing crunch and aggressive scheduling on the part of major carriers.

“The airlines took a significant amount of public money in order to keep their operations viable throughout the pandemic and we thought that would keep their operational availability in place, but …they’re experiencing the same kind of labor shortages both in the cockpit and cabin staff that [are] coursing through the rest of the economy," Kerby said. 

Since the pandemic, pilots have retired at a faster rate than they are getting replaced, and there are also fewer mechanics, flight attendants and baggage handlers, travel experts said. Those experts also said there is training backlog for pilots who were furloughed during the pandemic or recently hired. 

“There are a lot of forces converging here to make this a difficult summer for passengers,” said Bryan Terry, a global aviation leader at Deloitte Consulting LLP, based in Atlanta. Terry said challenges are compounded by air traffic control issues, COVID-19-linked work absences and long airport security lines. 

In April, the most recent statistics available, 75.68% of major carriers were on time, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures. That was down from 79.65% from the same month in 2019, well before pandemic-related disruptions set in.

May airfare prices shoot up 37.8%

Meanwhile, there is waning consumer satisfaction with airfares, flights crews and aircraft, according to a survey released by consumer research company J.D. Power in May. That's as airfare prices in May shot up 37.8% over the last 12 months and gas prices increased 48.7% over that same span, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s the least reliable airline industry I have ever seen in my memory, which is 45 years of professional involvement. It’s an embarrassment,” said Bob Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc., an independent airline industry analysis firm in Port Washington.

Major airlines have responded by adjusting their summer schedules, and in some cases, cutting flights.

Citing a regional pilot shortage, American Airlines recently disclosed it would drop service to four destinations in September: Islip and upstate Ithaca; Toledo, Ohio; and Dubuque, Iowa.

The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged in an emailed statement that “there have been staffing issues for a few hours at a few facilities,” but said there are no nationwide shortages.

JetBlue and Delta previously said they would trim summer schedules to improve reliability. 

During Father’s Day week, American Airlines canceled 1,400 main line flights. More than 50% were attributed to failure to connect a pilot to an airplane, according to Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and union spokesperson at Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots. 

“They sold tickets and went for the demand and for the cash but didn’t consider if they had the crews to fly the airplanes,” said Tajer, who hopes the FAA will hold airlines to account.

American Airlines did not return repeated requests for comment.

A Southwest Airlines flight takes off at Long Island MacArthur...

A Southwest Airlines flight takes off at Long Island MacArthur Airport on March 25, 2021. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Evan Baach, a Delta pilot and spokesperson with the Delta chapter of the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), also said the Atlanta-based carrier was scheduling more flights than it could handle.

“Going into the summer, we knew this was going to be a problem. We approached management multiple times to let them know the staffing was not adequate and unfortunately, over Memorial Day weekend and [Juneteenth], we saw operational issues,” Baach said.

Delta pilots wrote an open letter to customers on June 15 sharing their frustration and calling the continued disruptions “unacceptable.”

 A Delta spokesperson said the airline is working to adjust to any unpredictable occurrences, while keeping the pilot scheduling consistent with requirements.

“We continuously evaluate our staffing models and plan ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise. .. Pilot schedules remain in line with all requirements set by the FAA, as well as those outlined in our pilot contract,” a Delta spokesperson said in a statement.

Union leaders at American, Delta and Southwest Airlines allege that many pilots are overworked and more are citing fatigue as a reason not to fly. The scheduling limits for pilots at major airlines are 30 hours a week with a minimum of eight hours of rest in between, according to ALPA. American and Southwest pilots recently picketed over conditions. Delta pilots also picketed in April.

“At the current rate, by this fall, our pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than in the entirely of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date,” according to the letter Delta pilots penned to customers.

At American, Tajer said, there has been a fourfold increase in fatigue calls since the pandemic recovery began last summer.

“If you’re counting on pilots during a fatigue state, the first thing that goes in fatigue is your judgment. ... That’s what we’re seeing here, lowering the training, quality and quantity and pushing the schedule to the maximum of human ability. You are inviting a very serious consequence. We are not going to let that happen,” Tajer said.

A Southwest spokesperson said the airline has a cancellation rate among the lowest of ranked carriers and is not experiencing a pilot shortage, while continuing to operate its peak summer flight schedule.

Southwest Airlines Pilot Association president Casey Murray said the problem is the misuse of pilots and the constant reassignments.  

“You can’t plan for a perfect day. They just aren’t possible in aviation. But you better have a plan that’s executable when things go bad,” Murray said.

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