How American air travel became a nightmare

It came as a rare moment of candor for the airline industry on Wednesday, when United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told analysts and reporters that after a year of relentless disruptions, including canceled and delayed flights, lost luggage and worse, Passengers can expect more. That in 2023.

Kirby said, “The system cannot handle the volume today, let alone the anticipated growth.” “There are too many airlines that can’t meet their schedules. Customers are paying the price.”

The year 2022 was one of the most stress-inducing for consumer air travelers in recent memory. Travel demand boomed after airlines cut resources during the pandemic, leaving carriers flat. Despite being unable to adequately staff flights, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, they continued to sell record-breaking numbers of tickets, resulting in more than one in five flights being delayed – since 2014. Highest rate of delay.

By Memorial Day last year, airfares were rising, and flights started getting canceled. The situation worsened over the summer, as disruptive weather left passengers stranded and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was forced to call a meeting with airline CEOs.

While autumn was mostly free of disruptions, the year ended with a winter storm that brought airline travel to a standstill, particularly at Southwest Airlines.

“The days of flying for fun are long gone,” said William McGee, a senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, antimonopoly group. “People will settle down without incident.”

Not everyone agrees with the nature of the problem. On any given day, the current system is mostly fine, according to Scott Mierowitz, executive editor of The Points Guy travel website.

“These are just a few examples of when things go wrong, that they go horribly wrong, and it causes serious problems for such a large number of people,” he said. “And it’s terrible if you’re one of those passengers – but next week, everyone moves along and the system works.”

Still, many agree about the short- and long-term challenges plaguing the industry. United’s Kirby indicated that airlines would soon be hit by a lack of adequate staffing. On the more distant horizon are modernization and market reform efforts that analysts fear could be hampered by political hurdles.

Analysts say these issues are likely to persist as long as the Washington gridlock persists.

labor shortage

As the pandemic hit, air travel was one of the most affected industries, as more than 90% of flights were grounded. Bloomberg News calculated that approximately 400,000 global airline industry workers lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

Today, labor shortages exist throughout the economy, but the problem is exacerbated in the air travel sector, which typically requires more extensive employee training.

“The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Where have they all gone?’ “There are millions of people who have disappeared from the labor market.”

First and foremost among the labor issues of the airline industry is the pilot shortage. According to an estimate, around 12,000 more pilots are needed. Even before the pandemic, pilots were retiring in large numbers as the baby boom generation reached the federally mandated pilot age limit of 65.

United’s Kirby said, “The pilot shortage is real for the industry, and most airlines are not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there are not enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years.” a quarterly earnings call last April.

But the pilot unions have opposed the demand for reform. Some fear the proposed changes could jeopardize security. Others worry that with younger, less experienced pilots among their ranks, some collective bargaining leverage will be lost.

On its website, the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilots’ union, calls the reduction a “myth” and accuses airline executives of trying to maximize profit – partly by reducing their flight schedules. By refusing

But ALPA also acknowledges that more measures could be taken to “maintain a strong pilot pipeline”, such as helping students pay for flight training and giving loans to cover it. With more pilots available to work, the burden on the system will be reduced.

Other stakeholders seem to be on the same page.

Trade group Airlines for America, which counts American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and others as members, told NBC News that its carrier is “working on our plans by hiring additional staff and adjusting our schedules to improve reliability.” Working diligently to bring operational challenges under control.”,

Sen. Lindsey Graham has introduced legislation to raise the pilot retirement age from 65 to 67. The bill is supported by the regional airline association, which says that since 2019, 71% of airports have reduced flights, and nine airports have lost service entirely. age limit result

“Under this legislation, approximately 5,000 pilots will have the opportunity to fly over the next two years and in turn will help keep communities connected to the air transportation system,” said Drew Remos, senior director of the association.

The world's largest aircraft fleet was grounded for hours by a cascading outage across a government system that delayed or canceled thousands of flights across the US on Wednesday.
Passengers check in at an automated counter at Logan International Airport on January 11, 2023 in Boston.Steven Seane / AP

obsolete technology and infrastructure

There is near-universal agreement that the infrastructure underpinning America’s air travel system is old and weak. This was on full display earlier that year when a technical problem at the Federal Aviation Administration caused all aircraft to be grounded. The agency said it was continuing to investigate, but Washington lawmakers said the glitch proved more drastic changes were needed.

Representative Sam Graves, R-Montana, said the incident exposed “a major vulnerability in our air transportation system.”

“Just as Southwest’s widespread disruption just weeks ago was inexcusable, so is DOT’s and FAA’s failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system,” he said.

The Southwest incident, too, was blamed partly on Southwest’s aging scheduling system, which requires crew members to call a central hotline when a disruption occurs. it happens.

The FAA is working to implement a system known as the NextGen system to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, part of which still uses paper strips to coordinate flight schedules. Reuters recently referred to that aspect as a “prolonged debacle”.

FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims said last April, “Much work is needed to reduce the backlog of maintenance work, upgrades and replacement of buildings and equipment needed to operate our nation’s airspace safely.” “

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, has said that additional federal funding is needed to accelerate modernization.

“I put it down to the fact that we’re not giving them the resources, the funding, the staffing, the equipment, the technology they need to modernize,” he recently told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“Hopefully, this will be a call from our political leaders in Washington that we need to do better,” Bastian said.

But Paul Hudson, president of the Flyers Rights consumer advocacy group, said the Department of Transportation is already getting enough funding — and that money is being spent unfairly.

Hudson told NBC News, “I would like to see an audit of where the money is.” “The DOT has had a huge increase, and it’s either not being spent, or it’s being spent on other things because of the cancellation.”

But this issue also comes back to staffing. The FAA said it was more difficult in 2020 to “hire technical talent quickly and effectively than ever before.”

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called for an alternative solution: privatization of the air traffic control system. This is a move that other countries have taken, including Canada, whose NAV Canada system has been a privately operated non-profit since 1996.

“It’s the gold standard of air traffic systems in the world,” said Scott Lincicom, director of general economics at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It’s efficient, innovative, and it’s a non-profit private company regulated by the government,” Linkicom said, “a great example of what the American system can be if we can face our difficulties.”

Image: Chicago Airport Line Passenger
Passengers queue for flights at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on December 30, 2021.name y huh / ap

gridlock

But Lincicom said there is a strong resistance to that solution — and to many other practical ones put forward by consumer advocates of all political stripes.

“It doesn’t look like there’s any appetite in Washington for that reform, despite the documentary problems,” Linsicom said. “It seems like a very tough nut to crack.”

In the meantime, travelers in the US will remain at the mercy of their individual airline. Already, U.S. airline passengers have fewer rights than passengers in Europe, according to Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, a European-based consumer rights advocacy group. While European passengers are entitled to up to 600 euros when there is a flight disruption of more than three hours that is not beyond the airline’s control, passengers on US flights are only entitled to a refund – and even that it can be difficult to obtain.

“It’s difficult to claim compensation from airlines,” Napoli said of airline passengers in the U.S. “They don’t have a lot of protection.”

Myrowitz, along with The Points Guy, said carriers will likely pass on the costs of stronger regulation to customers.

“Americans are used to $39 flights to Florida,” Meyerowitz said. “Passengers are unwilling to pay an additional $20 or $30 for each ticket whether or not they take advantage of these delay protections” if their flight leaves on time.

When adjusted for inflation, airfares have fallen more or less steadily since the mid-1990s. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airfare is expected to average $373 in 2022, compared to a ticket that cost an average of $558 in 1995.

McGee, with the American Economic Liberties Project, hopes to make flying in the US so difficult that lawmakers may eventually take more sweeping action.

“It’s about to collapse and it’s not a one-party issue,” McGee said. “There is a general sense in the country; a majority of Americans feel that something is really wrong with this industry.”

But Mierowitz said until those steps are taken, travelers should be realistic about what to expect when they take to the skies.

“Travelers should never lower their expectations, but should always be prepared for the worst,” Meyerowitz said. “We need to hold airlines and politicians accountable. Air travel should be predictable and consistent, and you shouldn’t have to wonder if air traffic control is working today because you’re walking into an airport.

“That said, every traveler should always have a backup plan and a backup to back them up. And that’s especially true during the holidays.”

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