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

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 canceled, 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 cancelations and 20,644 delays among US airlines, according to according to tracking service FlightAware.

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.

“We’re really seeing revenge travel – people having had two years of pent-up demand and wanting to go out and travel,” said Matthew Howe, senior manager of travel intelligence at Morning Consult, a market research firm. “On the flipside, I think we have seen that some [airlines] may be struggling to meet the demand.”

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 you build a schedule with very little buffer because you have disproportionately assigned your 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 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. Photograph: Provided photo

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.

“It just added stress to us having to rearrange transportation but also having backup plans on what would happen if that one also got canceled or if they overbooked it,” said Johnson, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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 cancelation. 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.

“People still want people to wear masks,” said Taylor. “You go to any airport and they have the overhead announcements, ‘You should be wearing a mask,’ and you look around and about half the people are.”

Johnson is not alone in having a disappointing travel experience. JD Power reported that customer satisfaction with air travel in March 2022 had decreased from the same time a year earlier.

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

“It’s a great flight when you’re on a 737 and there are only 10 people on it. When there are 220 people on it, that’s a different experience,” he said.

Johnson also saw the cost of her round-trip ticket to Minneapolis from $297 in May to $578 in July, she said. The average US round trip ticket price in April was $585, which was the highest in seven years, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.

“I think with tickets being as high as they are, with inflationary pressures hitting people’s budgets, people are really expecting airlines to perform and deliver the services that they have promised,” Howe, of Morning Consult, said.

Waring, an executive sales coordinator with the healthcare IT company, was able to depart Newark on a United Airlines flight at 8.30am on 21 May, 13 hours after she was supposed to leave.

And the flight was for Los Angeles rather than San Diego. Her luggage had also didn’t make it on the flight. That meant she not only had to drive two hours to San Diego but also had to visit a Target to buy clothes. And when she finally got her bag, the handle was broken. She kept the receipts from her purchases and hopes the airline will reimburse her.

Fortunately, they were still able to prepare for the conference, which went well, said Waring, 47, who lives in Budd Lake, New Jersey.

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

The bad experience is “definitely not going to keep me from booking a flight”, Waring said. I’m just going to” make sure to “have a good size carry on that has some essentials in there”.

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