JetBlue Has Slashed Its Summer Schedule. Will More Summer Flights Be Affected?
A huge surge in demand for travel has airlines struggling to keep up amid ongoing staffing and pilot shortages. Experts weigh in on what that means for your summer travel plans.
Cancellations and delays on the rise. Planes fuller than they’ve been since the dawn of the jet age. Three-hour hold times to get a real human being on the airline help line. Is this a recipe for a disastrous summer travel season for fliers?
A preview of what summer air travel could look like came last month during the peak spring break travel period, when flight schedules were roiled by a combination of severe weather and staffing shortages that were only worsened by a resurgence in COVID cases (and crews calling in sick). But it also opened the way for a possible solution, led by the airline that suffered the most service disruptions: JetBlue Airways. The carrier not only apologized to customers who were inconvenienced but it also took the unusual step of proactively slashing its summer schedules by 10 percent ahead of what promises to be one of the busiest travel periods in years. That’s a significant retreat from its plans to grow its capacity by 11 to 15 percent in 2022 compared to 2019.
Why JetBlue cut its summer schedule
JetBlue said its reduced schedule “will add more buffer room throughout the day to make up for operational disruptions and put less stress on its crew resources,” according to a statement from Joanna Geraghty, the carrier’s president. Noting that airlines are anticipating “a record-breaking summer,” Geraghty said that JetBlue will prune flights and step up hiring and training, especially in one area where consumer frustrations are running high—customer support centers. Call volume and hold times shot up last month across the airline industry, and carriers are struggling to hire and train new workers in a tight labor market.
Travel experts say that the recent services meltdowns are a wake-up call. “April was a real horror, especially for JetBlue,” says Michael Derchin, airline analyst and author of the Heard in the Hangar newsletter. But he said there’s plenty of blame to go around. “All the airlines have had trouble matching their schedules with their employees’,” he points out. With U.S. airline capacity still down from prepandemic levels, and load factors well over 85 percent, “there is no slack in the system at all when something goes wrong.”
Alaska and other airlines face pilot woes
Indeed, other airlines are voluntarily shrinking their route maps as well. Alaska Airlines, whose pilots are in the midst of voting on a possible strike (Alaska has said it’s “committed to reaching an agreement for a contract that is good for our pilots”), recently cut its flights through June by about 2 percent in an effort to minimize disruptions. Southwest Airlines, too, recently trimmed around 8,000 flights from its June schedule, after axing 14,500 flights from March through May. And some airlines, including American and United, have even substituted bus transfers in some short-haul markets, a move several reports have attributed to the ongoing pilot shortage.
Helane Becker, an airline analyst at financial services firm Cowen Inc., predicts that the air travel recovery will continue through this year and “accelerate into 2023.” But she concedes that staffing issues will continue to bedevil airlines and that the industry needs to hire enough skilled workers to avoid a repeat of the service woes of recent months.
“There is a very real pilot shortage and there is also a shortage of mechanics,” who maintain and repair planes, she says, adding that the airlines will need to hire “thousands of people across all categories.”
Consumer advocates say that’s no excuse for such poor performance. “Even prior to COVID, there was this talk of a pilot shortage,” says William J. McGee, aviation advisor for Consumer Reports. During the pandemic, airlines offered early retirement packages to pilots, leading to an exodus of experienced crewmembers and adding to the current shortage. But whatever the reasons, McGee says airlines shouldn’t be selling more seats than they can handle. “If they are knowingly scheduling flights that they can’t operate, that is a very serious charge.” He said he welcomes moves like JetBlue’s to get capacity more in line with reality.
To be sure, airlines typically are loath to shrink their networks to a more manageable size, lest they inadvertently open the way for a competitor to gain an advantage.
But analyst Derchin says those concerns pale next to the current challenges confronting the industry: “This is a new world since the pandemic and nobody is immune to its effects.”
Despite the challenges, demand for travel continues to skyrocket
While reducing schedules could actually help improve service, the flipside is whether cutting flights, and thus reducing the pool of available seats, will just push up airfares further. Even if it does, analysts say that pent-up demand for travel is proving to be surprisingly resilient, despite yet another rise in COVID cases.
“Capacity may be down, but demand is through the roof,” says Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition advocacy group. “They’re calling it ‘revenge travel,’ they just want to get the heck out.” He says that there are even signs of an uptick in business travel ahead of forecasts.
No matter how strong the demand for travel is right now, if the airlines want to avoid a repeat of 2021, when air travel was rocked by a wave of travel nightmare-inducing flight cancellations (which started in the summer and continued through the holiday season), they will likely need to look into more preemptive service cuts. It might sting at first, but the end result will be better customer service and (hopefully) a smoother summer of flying for us all.