Massive flight delays, cancellations prompt finger-pointing

Airlines are racking up an unprecedented number of delays and flight cancellations just months after Congress gave the industry $54 billion so that carriers could retain their employees and facilitate a seamless return to air travel as the nation emerged from the pandemic.

From July 1 to July 6, JetBlue delayed 51 percent of its flights, Southwest Airlines delayed 39 percent of its flights and American Airlines delayed 34 percent of its flights, according to data from FlightAware. Those setbacks came after major airlines canceled hundreds of flights this month to prevent additional delays.

Industry experts said poor weather conditions grounded many of those flights but also blamed the almost unprecedented uptick in delays and cancellations on a shortage of trained pilots and airport employees.

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“We’re seeing a pilot training shortage,” said Dennis Tajer, communications committee chairman at the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots. “The pilots are there, but their hands are tied because they aren’t fully trained and they can’t fly yet.”

Major airlines urged pilots to take leaves of absence or early retirements at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, believing that air travel wouldn’t rebound any time soon. When government support temporarily ran dry late last year, airlines cut tens of thousands of jobs. American Airlines furloughed 1,600 pilots, making it the only major commercial carrier to do so.

Pilots are required to undergo a rigorous training program before they return to the cockpit. Some pilots who took leaves of absence are still waiting to complete their training as airline instructors work to accommodate the influx of returning pilots.

“With furloughs, early retirements, leaves of absence and parking more than 100 airplanes, those are four epic points,” Tajer said. “All of that converged on a training funnel that got very narrow, and American management could not accommodate that.” 

A spokesperson for American Airlines said the company’s recalled pilots completed their training as of the end of June, and its delays in early July stemmed from weather events.

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A Southwest Airlines spokesperson blamed its delays on “prolonged and widespread thunderstorms and unrelated challenges with technology” and said Southwest was the only major airline to maintain service at every U.S. airport that it served before the pandemic.

“We were staffed for what we’re flying and we’re flying for what we staffed,” the spokesperson said, noting that congressional aid allowed the airline to maintain its workforce.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said last month that the U.S. could face a continued shortage of pilots because the U.S. military doesn’t train enough pilots.

“The military produces far fewer pilots today than they did in the Vietnam and the Cold War era and it’s hard to become a pilot — a commercial airline pilot on your own — if you’re not going through the military,” he told Axios.

The worker shortage extends beyond pilots. The aviation industry is finding it difficult to find employees to clean airplanes, transport baggage and handle reservations, among other roles.

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Airlines have struggled to keep up with the summer surge in passengers. More than 10 million travelers flew over the July Fourth weekend, representing about 83 percent of the travel volume compared to 2019, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Airline and airport executives have stressed that their companies are not immune to the effects of a nationwide worker shortage. The U.S. had a record high 9.2 million job openings in May, according to data from the Labor Department released last week.

Airlines also argue that their ability to hire workers is inhibited by their huge losses. A recent report from industry lobbying group Airlines for America found that passenger airlines lost $5.5 billion in the first quarter of 2021.

“While this resurgence in domestic travel and enormous pent-up demand to take to the skies is encouraging, there remains a long road to recovery for our industry,” said Katherine Estep, a spokesperson for Airlines for America. “Today, U.S. airline passenger carriers are still burning $95 million in cash each day, largely because corporate and international travel remain decimated.”

Critics point out that airlines and airports, unlike other hard-hit industries, received government relief to keep their employees on the payroll. An investigation by Democratic staffers on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that companies contracting with the aviation industry laid off tens of thousands of workers despite receiving federal aid.

Labor unions representing airport workers such as the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE have blasted the industry for outsourcing jobs to contractors that don’t bargain with workers’ unions. They say lackluster pay is deterring workers from coming back.

Airlines emerged as one of the only industries to receive carved-out aid in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Most of the major airlines increased their lobbying spending during that period to push for relief. Lawmakers extended three rounds of relief to airlines, including $14 billion in payroll assistance in March that will last through September.

Airlines and airports have come under scrutiny over their use of relief funds. A March analysis by The New York Times found that congressional aid helped save 75,000 industry jobs, but the effort cost taxpayers at least $300,000 per employee.

Still, even labor leaders who have been critical of airlines say the government bailout was necessary. They say the return to air travel would have experienced significantly more turbulence had Congress not authorized several rounds of payroll assistance.

“It was so clearly the right move to make,” Tajer, of the Allied Pilots Association, said. “If that investment didn’t come in like it did, we would have seen a collapse of the airline industry.”