Pilot shortages, fuel prices and Covid: US braces for travel chaos

 Monday, June 13, 2022 



On a recent Friday night Laura Waring needed to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to San Diego to help set up her healthcare information technology company’s conference, which was scheduled to start the next Monday.

But, after her flight was repeatedly delayed and then cancelled, Waring slept for about 45 minutes on a cot at Newark airport before she woke up cold and uncertain how she would get to California.

That was just the start of her troubles. And according to travel industry experts, Waring’s experience will likely not be unique among people flying in the coming months.

Over Memorial Day weekend, there were more than 2,800 cancellations and 20,644 delays among US airlines, according to according to a tracking service.

The experts see that as an early indicator of a turbulent summer travel season because of a pilot shortage; increased consumer demand; a recent rise in fuel prices; and disagreements over which COVID-19 restrictions should remain in place.

The number of airline pilots and engineers decreased from 84,520 in May 2019 to 81,310 in May 2021, an almost 4% decrease, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the country will need more than 14,000 new pilots each year for the next decade, according to the bureau.

Workforce shortages predating the pandemic have been accelerated, particularly for technicians and for pilots, who have long been entering the career in fewer numbers than those retiring, the Regional Airline Association, a trade group, stated in its 2021 annual report.

That shortage means people seeking to travel this summer will likely face fewer options than before the pandemic, according to Michael Taylor, practice lead for travel intelligence at JD Power, a consumer research firm.

For example, before the pandemic airlines may have had had departures every hour for major hubs like Chicago and Atlanta. Now they will only happen every 90 minutes, and the planes will be busier, he said.

The airlines are going to be redeploying a larger fleet with fewer city destinations in their flight system, said Taylor.

Fewer flights and a shortage of staff translates into less slack in the system, Taylor explained.

Whereas before the pandemic, an airline may have had crews at an airport on standby in case of an unexpected event, airlines aren’t doing that as much because they need those staff on flights.

Then when a storm hits and delays a flight, there may not be substitutes for the scheduled crew members, who the Federal Aviation Administration only allows to fly a certain number of hours each day.

Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for Allied Pilots Association, the union for American Airlines pilots, said the airline is loading up pilots’ schedules to the absolute maximum.

When one builds a schedule with very little buffer because one has disproportionately assigned their pilots reserve duty, it’s very expensive, and it’s very ineffective, and it ultimately leads to a less reliable operation, said Tajer.

Airlines are adjusting to the new challenges. Delta announced 26 May that it would cancel 100 daily flights from 1 July to 7 August around the US and Latin America.

More than any time in our history, the various factors currently impacting our operation – weather and air traffic control, vendor staffing, increased COVID-19 case rates contributing to higher-than-planned unscheduled absences in some work groups – are resulting in an operation that isn’t consistently up to the standards Delta has set for the industry in recent years, Allison Ausband, Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer, said in the announcement.

Alicia Johnson, a 28-year-old mental health therapist, was scheduled to fly back to Detroit from Minneapolis after her cousin’s Memorial Day weekend wedding when she received a notification Sunday morning that her Monday morning flight had been canceled.

She was rebooked for one three hours later. She and her fiance decided not to make the same trip with Delta for another wedding in July.

It wasn’t just because of the cancellation. Johnson also flew in April, shortly after the federal government lifted its mask mandate for people on airplanes.

She continued to wear her mask because of family members with autoimmune disorders. During the flight, she felt like the Delta crew was celebrating the end of the masking requirement.

Taylor attributes that change to the increase in the number of passengers.

She is still planning on flying with United in August to Florida for a family vacation.

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