U.S. Airlines Continue Struggle to Cope with Increased Demand

 - April 14, 2022, 7:10 AM
Several airlines in the U.S. saw at least double the number of cancellations in the first quarter of 2022 compared with the same period in 2019. (Data source: FlightAware)

U.S. airlines continue to struggle to cope with increases in traffic volumes amid the waning of the Covid 19 crisis, leading to frustration among the traveling public and finger-pointing within industry circles over the cause of the high level of delays and cancellations.

Statistics from flight-tracking service FlightAware show a 31.6 percent increase in cancellations and a 3 percent increase in delays in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2019, before the Covid pandemic drove a sharp decline in traffic starting early the following year. In fact, U.S. airlines completed 13.1 percent more flights in the first quarter of 2019 than during the first three months of this year, underscoring the extent of the recent poor operational performance.

While the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) blames airline mismanagement for the situation, the reasons appear more complicated and involve a confluence of events. FlightAware data, for example, supports—to a degree—airlines’ tendency to attribute much of the problem to weather events. While the first quarter of 2019 saw no particularly unusual weather-related spikes in cancellations, several severe weather events this past winter certainly led to a large number of them, led by early February’s Winter Storm Landon, which resulted in 5,247 cancellations on February 3 alone, or 22 percent of all flights in the U.S. Less than a week earlier, on January 29, a Nor’easter storm resulted in the cancellation of 3,599 flights, or 18 percent of the total.

Nevertheless, the bad weather doesn’t explain more systemic problems within the industry, largely stemming from staffing shortages during a time a fairly rapid increase in traffic appeared to catch airlines off guard. Airlines have warned of a dearth of pilots for some time, but the problem also extends to flight attendants, mechanics and other ground personnel, and even airport staff following major reductions in headcount during the Covid pandemic.

Notwithstanding the industry’s persistent complaints about a pilot shortage, particularly among regional airlines, ALPA insists that over the past eight years the U.S. has produced “more than enough certificated pilots” to meet hiring demands and compensate for pilot retirements during the Covid pandemic, even as the FAA enacted stricter rules for Part 121 hires including a 1,500-hour flight time minimum.

“However, what we do have is a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be upfront about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay,” said ALPA in a statement to AIN. Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union claims that 1.5 certificated pilots exist for every job opening.

“Two years ago, U.S. airlines were on the brink of economic disaster,” read the ALPA statement. “Bookings dropped more than 90 percent, and executives faced bankruptcies and financial ruin. The federal government—and American taxpayers—intervened and helped stop the bleeding. Airlines received not one, not two, but three financial lifelines totaling $63 billion.”

The union argues that financial aid granted by the U.S. government’s Payroll Support Program to help keep aviation workers on the job and off unemployment insurance during the pandemic should have put the nation’s airlines in a position to prepare for recovery.

“The truth is that some airlines planned for the recovery better than others,” ALPA said. “Some anticipated what would be needed—and when—to meet consumer demand. Some don’t even have the capacity to train the large number of available pilots on their aircraft or rely too heavily on outsourcing options that cannot meet demand. Others bet against a strong U.S. recovery. That was a bad bet, and now those airlines’ leaders are trying to blame frontline aviation employees for their bad business decisions by saying they can’t find enough workers.”

Airlines for America (A4A), the trade group that represents 11 U.S. major airlines, failed to respond to AIN’s request for comment on ALPA’s claims.

One A4A member, Alaska Airlines, recently said it would cut 2 percent of its schedule to stem cancellations and delays it attributes to a shortage of pilots. Coincidentally, the airline and ALPA remain mired in a heated contract dispute that saw informational picketing at several major cities starting early this month. The union’s Alaska Airlines unit, or Master Executive Council (MEC), complains that the airline hasn’t negotiated a full contract since 2013 and that many pilots have left the airline for better pay, more scheduling flexibility, and greater job security elsewhere, leading at least in part to its predicament.

“Our work rules are frozen in time in so many ways,” said Alaska Airlines MEC chairman Will McQuillen in a video produced by the unit. “So more than ever we’re advocating for the flexibility, the work rules, and the job security that other carriers have.”

Former airline pilot and FlightAware marketing and communications strategist Kathleen Bangs explained that the pilot staffing problem is worse in the U.S. compared with parts of the world where ab initio training programs proliferate. “We don't see this overseas because they have those ab initio programs where they pick people and then they train them and then you kind of work as an indentured servant and you pay off your [training cost with] years [of service],” she said. “But we don't have that system here yet.”

Bangs nevertheless agreed that the severity of the pilot shortage differs among U.S. airlines, particularly between the majors and regionals. “If you look at the regionals, there's a tremendous shortage and they're parking airplanes and canceling flights because they just simply don't have pilots coming into the system right now,” she explained. “And, of course, the regionals want to see the 1,500-hour rule go away.”

The Regional Airline Association has sounded alarms over the issue of pilot recruitment for years. Covid-19 aggravated the problem, resulting in a 5.1 percent decline in the number of ATP AMEL pilots with valid first-class medical certificates in March 2022 compared with the same month in 2020, according to the RAA. In a report on trends in the pilot workforce and small community air service released on March 25, the association underscored the difficulty regional carriers face in attracting talent given the wide variety of competition for pilots, increasing labor costs and cutting profit margins on low-density markets. Higher costs and lower revenues inevitably expose the smallest markets to the risk of service cuts and aircraft carrying higher unit costs—namely, regional jets—get parked, it said.   

The association does not, however, favor the repeal of the rule adopted in 2013 that set a baseline of 1,500 hours for Part 121 first officers, RAA president Faye Malarkey Black told AIN. Rather, she said, the RAA supports better training and credit for “enhanced” training in place of raw flying time.

“There is a huge difference between an additional 1,000 flight hours spent cruising in autopilot or accruing flight hours in clear weather, which does nothing to improve pilots’ flight control skills relevant to the commercial flight deck,” said Black. “Compare that against an additional 500 hours of time achieved with a thoughtful, supervised, and monitored curriculum designed to develop flying skills and advanced techniques. 

“We are not advocating for repeal of the so-called 1,500-hours rule; this is the law of the land,” she added. “In allowing for structured training credits in lieu of sole hours accumulation, Congress incentivized flight training programs to continually improve and modernize academic training for pilots. Expanding these high-quality pathways could help more pilots gain access to the career path, not just improving supply and protecting smaller community air service but increasing equity and diversity in the profession.”