How Did Air Travel Get So Bad?

More than 80,000 domestic flights were canceled between January and May. The only year in the past decade to see more cancellations than that was 2020. How did it all go so wrong?

The Great Travel Rebound hasn't been so great.

The Great Travel Rebound hasn’t been so great.

Photo by Shutterstock

A little more than two years after travel fell off a proverbial cliff, travelers are finally back on airplanes in numbers that have started to resemble prepandemic passenger volumes. The airline industry and the fliers indulging in long-postponed travel plans should be jumping for joy, right? Not exactly. Two years later, the Great Travel Rebound has been nothing short of a disaster.

Between January and May 2022, 88,161 U.S. domestic flights were canceled, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data released last week—that is 16,116 more flights than were canceled during the same period in 2019. The only time in the past decade that the first five months of the year saw more cancellations was 2020. The bulk of the cancellations came from U.S. legacy carriers—American, Delta, and United—which also fly the highest number of passengers in the United States.

“While the demand and revenue landscape [are] the best we’ve seen, the operational environment for the entire industry remains uniquely challenged,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said during the airline’s quarterly earnings call earlier this month. Bastian apologized “to those who have been impacted by cancellations, delays, and long wait times over the last two months.”

Of the flights that operated between January and May, 23.5 percent were delayed, a slight increase from the 22.1 percent of delays experienced three years prior. But perhaps most telling has been the number of passenger complaints. In May 2022, 4,344 complaints about air travel service were filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation—a 237 percent jump from the 1,289 complaints received in May 2019. Of those complaints, one-third were concerning refunds, and 24 percent were with regards to cancellations, delays, and scheduling issues.

“I think there is justifiable anger among a lot of folks considering the elevated numbers of disruptions to people’s travel plans—especially for folks that this might be their first trip they’ve taken in years,” says Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “To have it be disrupted by a cancellation or major delays is pretty upsetting.”

Keyes adds that airlines would probably say they were “optimistic in the face of uncertainty,” regarding how many flights they thought they could manage in 2022. He notes that in nonpandemic times, setting the flight schedule months in advance was not a terribly difficult task since the previous years offered a somewhat reliable guide for what booking patterns might be.

Using data from past years to help make scheduling decisions for the year to come “has not been something that has been possible for the last couple years. Trying to make those sorts of educated guesses are much more guess than educated now.”

In response to the resulting operational challenges, Delta is keeping flight capacity at the level it was at in June for the remainder of 2022. Last month, United announced that it would be removing 50 departures per day from its Newark lineup starting on July 1 and through the remainder of summer, which represents a 12 percent reduction of its schedule at the hub. Other airlines have responded to the overwhelming rise in demand—and the cancellations and delays that have resulted—by proactively cutting back on their scheduled flights. This spring, JetBlue Airways slashed its summer schedule by 10 percent. Alaska Airlines cut its flights through June by about 2 percent in an effort to minimize disruptions. And Southwest Airlines trimmed around 8,000 flights from its June schedule, after axing 14,500 flights from March through May.

Lingering effects of the pandemic

To understand how we got to the challenges of 2022, we have to go back to the unprecedented events of 2020, says Laurie Garrow, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and president of AGIFORS, a nonprofit organization focused on airline research.

“In March 2020, global demand dropped off 90 to 95 percent,” says Garrow. “Never before had we seen such a dramatic and sustained loss in demand. In that kind of extreme demand drop-off, you have to make choices in terms of how you’re going to keep your airline up and running while minimizing some of your costs.”

In order to receive $54 billion in federal pandemic aid, U.S. airlines were barred from laying off workers, but they weren’t prohibited from offering buyouts and early retirement bonuses, and tens of thousands of workers took the money. During that time, airlines also stopped hiring, effectively cutting off a pipeline of potential new pilots, crew, and additional staff who would be needed when travel returned.

“That pause in hiring, that shedding of pilots on staff, means that when travel demand did come back, [the airlines] were left flat-footed. They were left understaffed, and they are now trying to dig out of that hole,” says Keyes.

It isn’t just pilots the airlines lack. Every element of air travel faces a staffing crisis, including baggage handlers at the airports and air traffic control crew (the latter are hired by the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S.). These shortages have compounded the problem, leading to those well-documented, astronomically long lines at airports and mountains of lost luggage.

Added to the staffing issues has been the challenge of bringing back into service thousands of aircraft that were mothballed in 2020.

“By May of 2020, the airline industry in the U.S. had parked half [its] aircraft fleet,” says Garrow. “Never before have we as an industry ripped half the capacity out of our system.” She notes that since then, about 25 percent of the total aircraft capacity has been reintroduced into the system in 2021, and “we’re on track to get the rest of it back in in 2022.”

In the meantime, airlines have been left juggling a high-demand environment with much more limited supply.

Why did airlines sell the seats if they were lacking staff and resources?

Since airlines begin scheduling their flights and selling seats up to 11 months prior to takeoff, one has to wonder: Didn’t they do the math a year ago as flights were starting to book up? Couldn’t they see that they weren’t going to have the pilots, the planes, and the logistics to handle the number of flights they were selling within one year’s time?

“Airlines build their schedules to what they think demand will be and based upon what they believe their resources will be. For every ticket [airlines] sell in advance [they] have proceeds from that sale that [they] can use to pay people this year, to buy fuel for tomorrow’s flights, to pay for airplane deposits,” says Robert Mann of airline analysis and consulting firm R.W. Mann & Company, Inc. “The real problem is when things break down, when [the airlines] get more demand than expected.”

Delta’s Bastian admitted that the airlines tried too hard to make up for two years of pandemic losses and were over-ambitious when demand was hot. “We probably pushed ourselves too far,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

When the airlines saw demand rushing back, they did “as much as possible to take advantage of that by having their schedule be as optimistic as possible,” says Keyes, who thinks part of the problem was also that airlines didn’t just lose the critical pilots and crew to fly the planes; they also lost more experienced staffers in their corporate offices to handle the complexities of planning future flight service.

He offered the example of a more junior employee managing airline scheduling in 2021 who likely started seeing that travel was way up and that booking rates were really high.

“Are you going to have the maturity and foresight to say, ‘I’m not going to sell as many flights as I would like to because I’m not sure we’ll be able to operate them?’ Uh, absolutely not,” says Keyes. “You try to make as much money as possible and then you just hope that the other parts of the airline are going to figure out this pilot shortage, are going to figure out the airplane situation and be able to meet this optimistic schedule that you put together and that there’s been travel demand for. Clearly that’s not been how things have played out.”

What’s worse, air travelers have been paying a premium for the extremely unpredictable and often disappointing air travel experience of 2022. When adjusted for inflation, airfares for the first quarter of 2022 were up 17 percent from the first quarter of 2021, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported. June was the first month this year that airfares finally began to see a slight month-over-month decrease, with airfares dipping 1.8 percent last month, according to the U.S. Consumer Price Index.

When will air travel improve?

There are some indicators that airline performance is already starting to get better following a brutal first six months of the year. In July, flight cancellations have been down to just 1.6 percent of total scheduled flights, compared to 2.7 percent of flights cancelled in June, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.

To staff back up as quickly as possible, airlines are getting creative. In June, American Airlines increased the pilot pay for its understaffed regional carriers by more than 50 percent. Delta last week announced that it has partnered with private jet operator Wheels Up to allow pilots in its training program to log flight hours with Wheels Up to give them a quicker path to full-time employment. Delta said it is set to hire and train more than 2,400 pilots this year.

But recruiting pilots can prove challenging in today’s reality.

“I was very lucky,” a pilot who flies a Boeing 787 Dreamliner tells me about being able to hold onto his job during the pandemic by flying long-haul cargo flights in lieu of passengers. He wished not to be identified as he’s still flying today with a major international carrier, but he notes that even for pilots like him who made it through the pandemic without being furloughed or put on an early retirement plan, the current reality for pilots isn’t ideal.

“Airlines want to sell tickets at the cheapest price possible to get people flying. The problem with that is that . . . ultimately, you’ve got to make cuts somewhere and a big part of that is salaries,” he says. He notes that while there are still some incredible benefits to being a pilot—like flying to, and spending time in, beautiful destinations around the world—a lot of the glamor is being stripped away. Pilots and crew are being put up “in worse and worse hotels. The amount of time off you get between flights is changing. Trips are getting shorter and shorter.”

And, he adds, those who are becoming pilots today are never going to earn the equivalent of what pilots who were flying in “the glory days in the ’80s and ’90s” were making.

Despite the hiring and recruiting hurdles that remain, observers are optimistic that the months ahead should prove less turbulent.

“I’m cautiously hopeful that within the next month, definitely by the end of summer, that [airlines are] going to improve the operational performance and be in a good position for heading into the fall,” says Garrow. She notes that while inclement weather will always pose challenges for air travel, she’s confident that 2022 has served as a vital learning experience for the airlines that will lead to inevitable improvements in service.

Air analyst Mann sees air travel woes leveling out by next year. “I think 2023 is probably a resolution year, but that’s no solace to the people whose flights are canceled this year,” he notes.

According to Keyes, there could still be some rocky days ahead, but he also wants travelers to put the current crisis into perspective. “The vast majority of flights are still operating,” says Keyes, adding that for that reason he hopes that people don’t necessarily walk away from a dream vacation they have been planning for months for fear of a flight cancellation or delay. He reminds travelers that the odds are still in their favor.

Even as airlines continue to add staff, as the government hires more air traffic controllers, and as more baggage handlers help reunite checked bags with their rightful owners, fliers should continue to buckle their proverbial (and actual) seat belt. Things might still get bumpy.

“We must confront three risks that could grow over the next 6 to 18 months,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during the airline’s earnings update last week. Those risks are “industry-wide operational challenges that limit the system’s capacity, record fuel prices, and the increasing possibility of a global recession.”

Associated Press contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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