This summer is already turning out to be difficult for air travelers.
Southwest Airlines customers face thousands of delays and hundreds of flights this month due to computer problems, staff shortages and bad weather.
American Airlines is also struggling with an increase in delays and has cut its flight schedule until mid-July at least in part because, according to the pilots union, there aren’t enough pilots.
Travelers post photos of long airport lines and describe painful flights.
“It was ridiculously overcrowded,” said Tracey Milligan this week after traveling from her home in New Jersey to Miami via airports.
Milligan and her 6-year-old daughter suffered hours of delays on both legs of the journey. Before the flight to Florida, she said, JetBlue agents first told passengers there was a variation in the weight of the plane, then they were missing three crew members because the airline was understaffed, then there was a weather delay.
“I really wanted to start screaming and cursing everyone, but that won’t get you anywhere and security will come and get you off the plane,” she said.
At least the passengers on Milligan’s flights stayed cool. Airlines are seeing an increase in unruly passengers, and some experts predict it will get worse this summer as the planes get even more crowded.
According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than 2 million travelers flew through US airports for 10 days in June. Airlines say domestic vacation travel has almost returned to 2019 levels, although the number of passengers still fell by around 20% over the past week due to the overall lack of business travelers compared to the same days in 2019 is.
The airlines were expecting a blockbuster on the fourth weekend of July, with more than 100,000 US flights scheduled between July 1 and July 5. According to aviation researcher Cirium, that was almost twice as many as the 58,000 they had offered on the same days last year. On July 1, the TSA screened more people for the first time than on the same day in 2019.
The weekend highlights the rapid turnaround that is fueling an industry that struggled to survive last year. The recovery was faster than many expected – apparently also from the airlines themselves.
Since the pandemic began, U.S. airlines have received $ 54 billion in federal aid to cover labor costs. In return, they were forbidden from taking leave or dismissing workers. However, they were allowed to persuade tens of thousands of employees to buy-ups, early retirement or leave of absence.
Now some are realizing they don’t have enough people in key roles, including pilots.
As Southwest officials prepared for crowded flights over the holiday weekend this week, they offered to double up flight attendants and other staff who do extra work until Wednesday.
“The staff shortage is widespread. On the pilots side, it’s a training backlog, ”said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “The southwest came into summer with very little leeway.”
Murray said many pilots returning from vacation are still receiving federal training to brush up on their skills and are not yet eligible to fly. When storms cause long delays, pilots can hit their FAA limit on the number of hours they can work and there aren’t enough backups to intervene, he said. Additionally, Southwest pushed for an “aggressive” summer schedule to capitalize on rising travel demand.
As of June 14, Southwest has recorded an average of more than 1,300 daily flight delays – a staggering 40% of its flight schedule – according to figures from the tracking service Flightaware.com.
Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said most of the delays were weather related and with fewer flights than before the pandemic, it was harder for Southwest to recover from long thunderstorms.
At American Airlines, unions say labor shortages are contributing to delays and the cancellation of up to 80 flights a day from the schedule by mid-July. On a par with Southwest, the American pilots union said management had not acted fast enough to retrain 1,600 pilots who were temporarily on leave and then re-hired last year, or to replace the 1,000 who retired.
American also suffered high numbers of delays in June. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines appear to be doing better, although staff shortages resulted in Delta canceling dozens of flights over Thanksgiving last year and Easter this year.
Airlines that pushed people out a year ago and are now hiring again, which could help resolve staffing bottlenecks. Delta, for example, plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots by next summer, starting around 75 by August this year.
Passengers whose flights are not canceled or delayed still run the risk of being on board with pesky flightmates. Airlines have reported more than 3,200 incidents of recalcitrant passengers since Jan. 1, most of which involve compliance with the federal requirement to wear face masks on flights, and some face hefty fines.
Andrew Thomas, a frequent flyer who teaches international business at Akron University and has been tracking anger in the air for more than 20 years, believes conditions are ripe for even more airplane incidents this summer as travelers get more stressed than ever are.
“The problem was there before COVID, and now you take more people to heaven and make it worse with the masks,” said Thomas. “Service levels are awful. The planes are full, they don’t feed you, it’s hard to get food at an airport. The only thing that is easy to get is alcohol, which is not good. “
David Koenig can be reached at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter