Gone are the days, at the height of the pandemic, when air travelers avoided flying for fear of catching COVID-19.
The busy summer travel season has arrived and airlines are struggling to keep up with the demand of millions of people flying again, in addition to a myriad of issues that have complicated air travel.
What happened last weekend to slow flights?
Inclement weather, a busy summer travel season and FAA air traffic control restrictions severely curbed air travel on the East Coast last Thursday and Friday, grounding thousands of flights.
East Coast airlines canceled more than 1,700 flights Thursday and more than 1,400 Friday, according to Flightaware. More than 95% of flights across the country have taken off, despite the high number of cancellations.
Why is Florida a special problem area?
Flights to Florida surpassed pre-pandemic levels, setting new records. The increase in the number of flights, in addition to weekly rocket launches and major personnel problems at the Jacksonville air traffic control center, forces the FAA to reduce the number of planes that can enter the airspace, which which forces airlines to cancel or delay flights.
Staffing issues at Jacksonville Center, one of the nation’s busiest air traffic control centers, aren’t expected to be resolved anytime soon, as hiring and training air traffic controllers takes years.
Will this happen again?
Neither the airlines nor the FAA will be able to solve the problem on their own, which will lead to more cancellations. When storms do hit, the risk of significant delays and cancellations is possible, especially on the East Coast.
Once the storms settle in and the FAA issues delays and ground stops, there is little wiggle room. With full flights, there isn’t much room to move people to alternative flights.
Unfortunately for travellers, airlines are not required to compensate or provide hotels for flight delays or cancellations that are beyond their control, for example, due to weather.
If I’m looking out the window and it’s sunny, why is my flight delayed by the weather?
You often hear: “I’m looking out the window and it’s sunny, why do they blame the weather?”
If a pilot’s flight to Miami is canceled departing New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Friday evening, the aircraft and pilot are unavailable to take the morning flight from Miami to its next destination.
Moving aircraft and crew during massive disruptions takes time. Airlines are reducing their schedules in July and August to have more cushion with crews and planes, but that won’t make things perfect.
What happened to the bailout money?
The pandemic has been tough on the airline industry. The drop in demand has resulted in billions of dollars in lost revenue and thousands of lost jobs. The government gave airlines a $54 billion lifeline to stay afloat during the pandemic, but the money went to staff to keep them running and operations moving forward.
The government has demanded that airlines keep planes in the air despite little revenue. If the bailout money hadn’t come, some airlines would probably have closed and the situation as a country would probably be much worse than it is today.
Once they are stopped, it is much more difficult to restart. Keeping planes in the air made it possible to transport vaccines, keep the supply chain moving by transporting critical goods, and resume operations for travelers much more quickly. It also saved hundreds of thousands of employees from unemployment.
Do the airlines have enough staff? And what about the pilots?
Airlines are short of pilots and flight attendants and are working around the clock to hire and train people to join their ranks.
American, Delta and United are hiring about 200 pilots a month, but that may not be enough to fill the gaps. The Regional Airline Association has said the United States is expected to lose half its pilots in 15 years. Delta alone lost 1,800 pilots to early retirement to keep the airline operating during the pandemic.
“The airlines are underwater trying to breathe through a straw,” Dennis Tajer, U.S. 737 captain and Union spokesman, told ABC News in April. “Airlines are poaching each other’s pilots. It’s staggering the level of aggressiveness.”
The federal government caps the hours pilots can work for safety reasons, but they are working more than ever in many cases. US pilots and Delta are also in contract negotiations and are using this as a bargaining tactic.