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Unfriendly skies: From flight delays to cancellations, can air travel ever improve?

Travelers walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on July 2, 2022. - US airlines are bracing customers for what will probably be a bumpy Fourth of July holiday weekend as the industry struggles to manage a surge in travel demand that probably exceeds its current capacity. Flight delays and cancellations created a difficult start for many travelers leaving town for the holiday. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Travelers walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on July 2, 2022. - US airlines are bracing customers for what will probably be a bumpy Fourth of July holiday weekend as the industry struggles to manage a surge in travel demand that probably exceeds its current capacity. Flight delays and cancellations created a difficult start for many travelers leaving town for the holiday. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Delays. Cancellations. Passengers stuck in the wrong city, bags stuck wherever they were dropped.

A pilot shortage exacerbated by pandemic staff cuts and a mandatory retirement age has led to thousands of flight delays and cancellations. After a $50-plus billion bailout during the pandemic, why does airline service seem even worse?

Today, On Point: Can we expect air travel to improve?

Guests

William J. McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. Served as the lone consumer advocate on Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. Author of Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent and How to Reclaim Our Skies. (@WilliamJMcGee)

Also Featured

Sen. Ed Markey, U.S. senator for Massachusetts. Chair of the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate and Nuclear Safety; and the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy. (@SenMarkey)

Sec. Peter Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation. (@PeteButtigieg)

Mike Richards, commercial airline pilot.

Transcript: Highlights From The Show’s Open

REBECCA: Hi, this is Rebecca calling from Buffalo, New York. My family of five, back in late March of 2022, we were traveling. My husband and I, with our four year old, our three year old, and our one year old. And while we know that there is inherent risk traveling with young children, what we experienced at the Tampa airport in late March was just beyond the pale.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Very beyond. Rebecca’s travel day began with a notification from Southwest Airlines that her family’s flight would possibly be delayed, but it hadn’t been canceled. So she, her husband and those three little ones ventured to the Tampa, Florida airport.

REBECCA: We finally got to the airport, we were showing on time flight. So we had checked our luggage, which included, as you can imagine, three car seats, a pack and play for the baby to sleep, and various other kid gear. Along with returning our rental car. We sat in the terminal, which was overly crowded that day for quite some time, and eventually we saw multiple delays starting to pile up.

Not only with our flight, but the flights around us.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, if you’ve been through an airport recently, you’ve witnessed the scene. Exhausted travelers standing in long customer service lines, while also trying to get help over the phone, doing both for hours. That was Rebecca, hours on the phone with Southwest. Supposedly the delays were due to a thunderstorm passing through Tampa. But Rebecca says she was later told that Southwest had experienced a technical failure that morning that caused the delays.

REBECCA: I was really disappointed that they weren’t more transparent … that day. Since from the first flight out of the day, things seem to be going awry. You know, personally, what our family incurred was lack of food for the kids, and nowhere to stay. And we ran out of formula for the baby, and we just literally had nowhere to go. So for me, as a mother of a young family, it was one of the most scared moments of my life. Because … truly, my husband and I had no clue what to do that day.

CHAKRABARTI: Their delayed flight turned into a cancelation. It took two more hours to get their bags and car seats back. The … one piece of good luck? A family member was willing to drive an hour and a half to pick them up at the airport and take them in. It was four more days before Southwest could accommodate them on flights home to Buffalo.

So Rebecca is just one of the many, many, many listeners who called us with stories from the unfriendly skies. But people are still flying. In fact, demand is up. Airlines operated 26% more flights in March 2022 than in March 2021. But up to consumer complaints, up 300% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Department of Transportation. So we talked to the man who heads that department, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: The most important message that the flying public needs to hear is we’ve got your back. Look, sometimes there’s just a situation, like a weather event that is going to cause cancellations and delays. But other times, these are issues that are within somebody’s control. And we need to make sure that those issues are addressed, so that we have fewer of these cancellations and delays in the first place. And then when cancellations and delays do happen, we’re going to make sure that airlines meet their responsibilities to take care of you.

CHAKRABARTI: To be clear, the United States government has already taken care of the airlines. When the pandemic effectively shut down air travel in March of 2020, Congress quickly sent the airlines a $54 billion support package, as we noted.

Demand has since returned. Service levels have not. Cancelation rates and delays have been at record highs. By the way, Secretary Buttigieg suffered one of those cancellations. His flight, along with 1,400 others, vaporized off the departures board one Friday last month. Buttigieg is encouraged though, the airlines performed a better over the 4th of July holiday.

BUTTIGIEG: The cancelation rates were in the neighborhood of 3%, and that’s still too high compared to what you would expect to see in a normal year. We know this isn’t a normal year. Shockwaves from the pandemic are going through every part of the economy, including our aviation system. But these airlines, which received a lot of taxpayer funding to keep the system resilient, need to do their part. We’re going to do our part.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, what does doing their part actually mean for the airlines, for airport authorities, for the agencies that regulate them? Because it seems like no matter how many dollars are shoveled into the airlines, ticket prices trend up, and service quality trends down. Why does this keep happening with American air travel? Because those conflicting trend lines do not make for a resilient system. Well, today, Bill McGee joins us. He’s a senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project.

BILL McGEE: Hello. Thanks very much for having me on.

CHAKRABARTI: Have you ever seen as much focus on delays and cancellations in your history, understanding the airlines as we’re seeing now?

McGEE: No, I’ve never seen a summer like this, and I’ve been around the airline industry for 37 years now. I started working in the airlines in 1985. I worked in airline flight operations, so I was in the belly of the beast. I was one of the people that canceled flights, and rescheduled flights and consolidated flights. And then after seven years in the airline industry, I started writing about the industry. And then for the last 13 years, I’ve been advocating on behalf of consumers. I’ve never seen a summer like this. I don’t think anyone ever has. Quite frankly, we’re in uncharted territory here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Take us into the belly of the beast. And I would love to hear more about your experience back in the 80s and the 90s. What actually happens when someone in your position has to cancel or delay flights? How does that work?

McGEE: Sure. Well, it was you know, it was about 35 years ago, but it seems like it was about 3,500 years ago, in terms of how many changes there been in the industry. It was a much different industry then and there was much more of a focus on customer service. Now, I don’t want to be someone who just waxes poetic about the past and says, the good old days. There are a lot of things wrong with the industry then as there are now.

But I will tell you that what has happened over the last 20 years, driven largely by consolidation and mergers, we have a smaller airline industry now in 2022 than we have had at any time since the first airline ticket was sold in Tampa in 1914. We have an industry that is broken. There’s no other way of saying it. But I think it’s very critical for us to talk today not just about how the airline industry is broken, but how the regulatory model is broken.

The Department of Transportation, which oversees the industry, that model is broken. We just heard from Secretary Buttigieg. He said that the DOT has our backs. I’m sorry. With all due respect, the DOT has not had passengers’ backs. They have not had them for many years. And I’m happy to sort of dive into that. But in answer to your question, you know, back in the day, it was a different model because, first of all, the aircraft were not as full as they are now.

We are looking at what the industry calls load factors, the percentage of occupied seats on airplanes. We’re looking to break all time records that were set during World War II when the airlines were troop carriers. Planes are fuller than they’ve ever been. The system operates at peak capacity, virtually 24/7 every week of the year now. And that is not how transportation systems are designed. It’s not how highways are designed. It’s not how subways, or trains or busses are designed. It’s certainly not how airlines are designed.

When I worked in the industry, the average loads system-wide for the whole industry were in the high sixties, low seventies. So, you know, for every three seats, there was one that was unoccupied or more.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you hang up here for a second and forgive me for interrupting, but I want to clarify one thing that you said earlier. When you said the industry is smaller than it’s ever been before, you mean in terms of numbers of companies operating because of the consolidation.

McGEE: Yes, absolutely. Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. Okay. Yeah. I just wanted people to be to be clear on that. But we’ll get to more about consolidation a little bit later. But we have heard from so many listeners about their experiences this summer and even in the spring. And I just want to share as many of their stories as we can. So this is Kim Cruz. She was traveling from Logan Airport in Boston back home to Gainesville, Florida.

KIM CRUZ: My flight was delayed leaving Logan. The gate agent said that it was due to them not having a crew to clean the plane. So we sat around for a while instead of boarding. And then weather rolled in, which pushed us back, I don’t know, another hour and a half. We were late taking off because the runway was closed for that period of time. Now, mind you, if they had cleaned the plane on time, we would have departed on time. And I would have made my connection in Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, that connection that she did not make also happened to be the last flight of the day from Atlanta to Gainesville.

CRUZ: So I was stranded in Atlanta. And the airline, which was Delta, said that it was not their fault because of the weather in the area in Logan. If they cleaned the plane on time, we would have taken off on time and I wouldn’t have been stuck in the airport in Atlanta overnight. Which was something I don’t care to repeat anytime soon. So wish they were up to full staffing so that flights could run on time, no matter what the weather might be doing.

CHAKRABARTI: Now that’s one … listener story. We tried to understand or get a better understanding of why all these delays are happening. And so we reached out to Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who’s been advocating for consumers, for air travelers for quite some time. And he says that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has some data that show airlines have control over more of the delays than they are suggesting publicly.

ED MARKEY: The airlines have control over 40% of the delays for a four month period. We should know what the airlines did to deal with those problems and how much information they gave to the consumer — that there could be problems — in enough time for the flying individual to make an alternative plan.

CHAKRABARTI: So Bill McGee, we’ve got 30 seconds left in this first segment. Are the airlines accurately reporting how many delays, and the causes of those delays?

McGEE: I think there’s very reasonable doubt about what the airlines are reporting. This is a very opaque industry. We’re relying on the honor system for them to self-report their delays. And there’s ample evidence that they are blaming weather and air traffic control for delays that are fully within their own control, particularly staffing issues.

‘I Don’t Know How They’re Sustainable’: Pilot Mike Richards Reflects On Airline Staffing Issues

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: I want to drill down more into the staffing part of the problem … mentioned before. Because it’s one of the main tendrils of the root problem. As the pandemic surged, airlines, this is a couple of years ago, airlines opted to reduce the number of pilots on their payroll. And not just pilots, but other employees, too.

But we’re going to focus for a moment on pilots, because thousands of pilots were offered early retirement. In April 2020, 700 American Airlines pilots accepted early retirement packages. And nearly 5,000 pilots accepted voluntary leave offers. That’s 5,000 of the nearly 15,000 pilots employed by American at the time.

Mike Richards is a pilot for a budget airline, Allegiant Air, and we talked to him while he was on a family vacation in Utah, it’s his first vacation in more than two years. And Mike decided to take it, even as Allegiant is begging pilots to take on extra flights.

MIKE RICHARDS: I think that’s really where it is right now. Everybody wants to get out and go do something, all at the same time. I just got an email that said that they went to our union and said, We want to pay you guys 300% to pick up anything, anything more on your schedule. That’s a lot. 300%. And they tried to say, This is your union’s fault. They said no. But the unions said, we’ve been negotiating a contract now for a year and we’ve barely budged on anything. So we don’t want to negotiate a little stopgap to get through the summer. We want them to sit down, and negotiate a real contract that’s competitive with our peers and get that through. I don’t want to sit down and waste my time just getting through the summer. So I could tell that at least our management is concerned about the staffing levels and everything else.

Several people have quit in the last few months. I know there’s several more interviewing. So, you know, it’s a difficult climate for sure. What it appears is that when the pandemic started, a lot of very hasty decisions were made. I saw airplanes parked in several airports across the country. Kansas City had what seemed like an entire ramp filled with widebody aircraft that weren’t being used. And I’m sure there was a lot of panic and fear as far as when will things ever get better? How long will it take for anything to recuperate? Well, it recuperated quite quickly. And now your most senior and experienced pilots are retired. And, you know, you just exacerbated the problem of a shortage that was already at our doorstep.

So in many cases, a lot of airlines, rather than furloughing and then having to recall, which would set off huge training problems, as soon as you go a certain amount of time without flying, or operating or missing check rides, or training events, you would have to go back in and requalify.

Our airline did furlough. It lasted, I believe, a month or two. And then they recalled them. But yeah, I’m sure they regret that decision. When those pilots looked around and said, gee, is nobody else furloughed? We did. Now that everybody’s looking for pilots, well, there is that little bit of animosity where they said, why did this airline furlough me? You know, and they’re applying elsewhere. So our airline is getting pinched by attrition, very severely.

… We’re barely keeping up with pilots that are leaving. With the supply and demand the way it is, it looks like the major airline contracts are very competitive, very nice. And, you know, that’s where guys are going to pursue. It makes thing very tough for pretty much any other airline that wants to not just attract new pilots for future growth, but also retention.

There’s not going to be an easy fix for the pilots, but it’s something that’s been brewing now for, you know, 30 years or more. There’s been talk about it forever, and they’ve always found a way to push it off. And now they don’t have very many ways of pushing it off. All of our airlines merged and consolidated. We’ve raised the age once. I guess we could do it again. I love my company. I love the people I work with, but I don’t know. The attrition levels we’re seeing, I don’t know how they’re sustainable.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Mike Richards. He’s a pilot for Allegiant Air based in Orlando, Florida.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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