A shortage of pilots and a faster-than-expected takeoff in passenger demand are forcing some airlines to cut back flights and retool schedules.
Passengers who have already booked their summer travel should look out for the possibility of rebookings — and those who have yet to buy their tickets should watch out for rising airfares. week, daily passenger levels reached 2 million — nearing 2019 levels — according to traveler checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration.
How are the airlines coping up?
Airlines coped with the plunge in passenger traffic during the pandemic by furloughing workers and accelerating retirement and early retirement programs at a large scale or encouraging them to take extended unpaid time off from the aviation industry. Some found new jobs in truck driving, warehouses or turned to food stamps.
The airline industry received $48 billion in payroll support from coronavirus relief legislation. Airlines warned of steep layoffs if more support wasn’t forthcoming. They also issued layoff notices and then canceled them after receiving more support. At the time, the industry said it needed the relief in part to maintain employees so they could meet domestic flying demand after passengers came back. Despite these efforts, the industry is still scrambling.
Airlines were already struggling with a pilot shortfall going into the pandemic to replace a swath of pilots and mechanics, hired during the 1980s boom, who had reached mandatory retirement age.
” With a domestic recovery underway, the industry faces a shortage of skilled personnel and an empty replacement pipeline — except to rob and retrain pilots and [maintenance technicians] from their affiliated/vendor regional airlines, which just outplaces the shortage to the industry”- said Bob Mann, an industry analyst with R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation sector consulting firm.
American Airlines canceled over 400 flights over the weekend according to flight data tracked by FlightAware and projected it will have to cancel 50 flights per day until mid-July, over 1,200 in total, or 1 percent of its total schedule.
The airline cited staffing shortages, maintenance issues, and inclement weather, and said it was trying to minimize passenger disruption.
Experts warn passengers should get ready for higher airfare prices. Airfares are expected to keep rising and peak in July and August, at the peak of the summer travel season. They tend to decline after Labor Day with the return to school and then rise again over the winter holidays.
Furloughed pilots and crew members need to get retrained before being brought back to service, but airlines are running behind as the surge in flier demand has everyone running behind schedule, experts say.
Airlines are trying out a range of tactics to lure crews to in-demand flights and boost hiring. Delta announced plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots by summer 2022 to cope with the travel increase. Southwest Airlines is using chatbots and says it is using A.I. to tailor messages to candidates. Airlines are reaching back out to pilot candidates whose hiring was paused due to the pandemic to resume the process.