Blame airlines for a summer of flight delays and cancelations

It’s called the summer of “revenge travel” — the time when Americans have stayed home for the past two years because of the pandemic to book their dream vacations to make up for lost time.

But the spike in demand, coupled with the airline industry’s still understaffed, COVID-19 outbreak among pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, and severe storms, have instead created a summer of travel. chaotic calendar.

Flight cancellations and delays are on the rise, especially during peak travel times such as weekends and holidays. Since the beginning of June, nearly 26,000 flights, or 2.2% of all flights by US airlines, have been canceled and 260,000, or 22% delayed, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking company. fly.

“In my 37 years in the industry, I have never seen a summer,” said William McGee, former director of airline operations and consumer advocate for the nonprofit American Economic Freedom Project. like this.

So who is to blame? Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of criticism directed at pilots and air traffic controllers, among others. But industry insiders blame much of the blame on airline executives, who have scheduled thousands of additional flights to cash in on increased demand this summer. With a workforce overflowing with inexperienced new hires and hampered by the COVID outbreak, the results have been dire.

Sara Nelson, president of Assn, said: “A big contributing factor is that demand is coming back too quickly and airlines are trying to meet that demand, at the same time increasing overload and increasing too much. capacity,” said Sara Nelson, president of Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL – CIO.

Airline operators admit that they have acknowledged and have reduced capacity by 16% since the spring of this year.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told analysts during his July 13 earnings call. “We’re positioned not just for the next month or so, we’re positioned for it. for this year’s balance to hold our ground. And that level of stability gives operations the ability to focus on the mission instead of continuing to invest and build for growth at the same time.”

The problems are not new. Cancellation and delay rates also spiked last summer and recent holidays as travel demand soars. And the passengers are fed up.

Sarah Huoh, of Huntington Beach, was stuck with her husband and two daughters for nearly 12 hours in Switzerland last week when their flight to London’s Heathrow Airport was canceled at the last minute. The family then missed a connecting flight to Los Angeles International Airport. “Nobody in the airport will help us. They would just let us call the service line, but no one answered that. “

After she managed to find a flight from London to Dallas, her connecting flights on American Airlines from Dallas to Los Angeles were also canceled and Huoh had to book another flight on American Airlines to Santa Ana.

Carrie Padgett, a technology writer from Central California, was arriving in Buffalo, NY, on a business trip from Fresno on Sunday when her 6 a.m. flight was cancelled. She was re-registered later that day, but when she landed in Buffalo, the shuttle to her hotel stopped running, forcing her to pay for a midnight taxi ride in an unfamiliar city. .

Padgett said she was not surprised by the flight cancellations and delays this summer.

“I was surprised to get to Buffalo without any problems,” she said.

Frustration with airlines had been growing for months – even before the summer spike.

The number of air service complaints filed with the US Department of Transportation increased by 237% in May, with 4,344 complaints, up from 1,289 complaints received in May 2019. JD Power’s annual airline satisfaction reported in May that airline passenger satisfaction was down more than 20 points, on a 1,000-point scale, from a year earlier. The research and analysis firm attributed the drop to airlines’ failure to manage the increased demand for travelers.

Passenger frustration could be exacerbated by higher airfares, mainly due to higher fuel prices.

In June, the average domestic round-trip airfare cost $605, up 33% from the same month last year, according to Airlines Reporting Corp., which handles ticket sales between airlines and travel agents. tour and travel management company.

The airline’s problem dates back to the spring of 2020, when the pandemic broke out and air travel came to a near standstill. The federal government has approved $54 billion in bailouts for airlines on the condition that airlines keep workers on the payroll. But to save cash, many airlines have offered early retirement packages for pilots, flight attendants and other workers, reducing the workforce by thousands.

Overall staffing levels in the US aviation industry have recovered to slightly below 2019 numbers. However, industry experts point out that many of the recent hires are laborers. inexperienced workers who are at the end of the learning curve. They think it’s a mistake to expect them to work effectively in the demanding summer conditions.

Randy Barnes, president of the Transportation Workers Union, Local 555, which represents transportation, operations and cargo workers for Southwest Airlines, said: degree or not fully trained at this time. “On paper, the numbers look good, but in real life we ​​don’t have all the staff fully trained.”

Southwest Airlines says it hired 10,000 new employees in 2022, and cancellation rates have fallen below 2019 and 2020.

“Continuing to train and introduce these employees, along with hiring thousands more, will be our focus for the rest of the year,” the airline said.

But other problems remain.

Pilot training and retraining is also slower than usual because COVID protocols require flight simulators to be cleaned and disinfected after each use. Social distancing can be nearly impossible in some classrooms and cockpit simulations.

The COVID outbreak among air traffic controllers – many of whom work together in cramped airport towers – has also resulted in staff shortages, leading to flight delays at some airports for several days. past month.

A series of thunderstorms and other extreme weather over the past few weeks have added to the woes for airlines.

In the face of frustrated passengers, federal lawmakers began putting pressure on airlines last month to fix the problem. Senses Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have all written to airline executives, urging them to ease down. delays and cancellations.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has mostly met with airline executives to discuss the matter, but just days after his private flight between Washington, DC and New York was cancelled. cancel. Buttigieg told NPR: “I think, this nose is quite beautiful. “It illustrates what millions of passengers are concerned about today.”

Airlines have sometimes blamed others for the mess – only to receive an angry response.

After the 4th of July weekend, a United Airlines executive suggested in an employee memo that most flight delays and cancellations were due to labor shortages in the air traffic control system. .

United’s chief operations officer, Jon Roitman, said in a memo published by Reuters and other news agencies.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the air traffic control system, hit back, saying United Airlines confused weather-related issues with staffing problems.

“The reality is that many overlapping factors have affected the system, including airline staffing levels, weather, high volumes and ATC capacity, but the vast majority of delays and cancellations are not caused by FAA employees,” the agency said in a statement.

The airline’s pilots’ organization, which represents 59,000 pilots from 35 US and Canadian airlines, has opposed the frequently repeated suggestion that a pilot shortage is the cause of the cancellations and delay, calling it “a story many in the industry use as a cover for profit-priority business decisions.”

According to the pilots’ union, more than 8,400 pilots were certified to fly in the 12 months to June 2020 – 1,700 more than in 2019.

A trade group representing the nation’s largest carriers wants to end finger pointing.

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy at trade group Airlines for America, said airlines have been held accountable for scheduling too many flights.

“I think these are the things we learned and we acted on what we learned,” she said.

The 16% cut of scheduled flights will reduce delays and cancellations, as well as hiring more staff to handle the workload, Pinkerton said, adding that airlines know that visitors are disappointed with the service they are receiving.

“It’s our brand and our reputation,” she said.

https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-07-22/flight-delays-cancelations-summer-2022 Blame airlines for a summer of flight delays and cancelations

Edmund DeMarche

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