Canceled flights; parked jets: Airlines struggle to meet demand in chaotic summer travel season

Airlines and passengers are suffering through a chaotic post-pandemic phase that has seen the industry struggle to deal with surging demand, leaving many passengers unhappy about everything from the prices of their tickets to aggravation over whether they’ll reach their destination.

Demand for flights has surged this summer to levels not seen since before the pandemic. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data shows 2.45 million people passed through the nation’s airports on Friday, the highest single-day total since Feb. 11, 2020.

Yet this demand is being met with a shortage of supplies.

Airlines have shed millions of seats from their summer schedules, which will push prices higher. They’ve delayed and canceled thousands of flights, and hundreds of jets remain parked despite the high demand. Some smaller airports have lost commercial flights entirely.

Passenger output on the Friday preceding Father’s Day and Juneteenth nearly broke pandemic records, but the same day airlines delayed more than 8,900 US flights and canceled nearly 1,500 others, according to FlightAware.

Explanations for the struggle run the gamut from a pilot shortage, high fuel costs and even extreme weather.

The craziness has attracted the attention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who met with airline executives last week. Buttigieg’s department said on Thursday that complaints about airline service were up more than 300 percent in April compared to the same time in 2019.

“Demand is as strong as we’ve ever seen it, people want to get out there and travel,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said at the company’s annual meeting earlier this month. “The key is just simply sizing the airline for the resources we have available.”

Airlines received billions in stimulus dollars from the federal government to preserve their payrolls during the pandemic, but companies still resorted to retirement buyouts and hiring freezes as demand sank, exacerbating what many in the industry viewed as an existing pilot shortage.

As flying demand now returns, many airlines say they struggle to attract pilots, leaving hundreds of planes idling with no one to fly them. The Regional Airline Association estimates airlines would hire 8,000 more pilots if they were available.

Commercial carriers are now downsizing, shedding in the last six weeks a combined 5.66 million seats from their US departure schedules in July and August, according to data shared by Flight Data Inc.

“We don’t have enough pilots to fly all the airplanes,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in December as the airline sidelined 100 planes.

American Airlines said earlier this month it would also park 100 planes due to the pilot shortage.

Many in the industry point to high barriers to enter the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots to fly hundreds of hours before they work at an airline and mandates retirement by age 65. A spokesperson for Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) told The Hill he is considering introducing legislation to raise the retirement age .

But the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest pilot union, sent its members to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month, pointing to figures showing the country has recently returned to producing more certified pilots than before the pandemic.

“The United States is producing a record number of pilots, yet some are still trying to claim we need to weaken aviation safety rules to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” ALPA President Joe DePete said in a statement.

Pilot groups affiliated with ALPA have found success in recent weeks leveraging airlines’ need for labor, with many negotiating substantial raises.

Many airline workers are complaining about working longer hours and experiencing more last-minute swaps. Workers are prevented from easily going on strike under federal regulations, but have voiced their discontent in other ways.

Alaska Airlines pilots voted overwhelmingly to merely authorize a strike last month. Delta Air Lines pilots last week penned an open letter to customers. Southwest Airlines off-duty pilots picketed in Texas.

Regional carriers, which operate flights marketed by major airlines from smaller airports to larger hubs, have been some of the most desperate to retain pilots.

Pilot unions at three regional carriers wholly owned by American Airlines – Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines – recently announced contract agreements that include “significant pay increases.”

Ric Wilson, Envoy Air’s vice president of flight operations, told The Hill that the airline is primarily having issues with losing to larger carriers its captains, the first-in-command on planes who face stricter requirements.

Wilson said the regional airline this month agreed to increase new pay rates and give pilots an additional 50 percent premium for two years, which comes after Envoy was losing 80 pilots per month.

“Since we’ve announced these, we’ve already seen that start to curtail and slow down,” Wilson said. “So we’re very hopeful that what the structure we’ve gone to is going to help us to retain those pilots in the future, instead of losing them to some of these other carriers.”

Regional Airline Association (RAA) President Faye Malarkey Black told The Hill that beyond pay increases, policy changes are needed to increase equity in the hiring pipeline, like rightsizing student loans and expanding training pathways.

“Pay alone is not solving this problem because it does not address the underlying barriers to career access,” Black said. “People without wealth can’t afford to train for this career because student loans don’t reach the cost of a pilot’s higher education.”

As regional airlines work to increase their pilot counts, many have resorted to cutting back service to smaller airports. Forty-three airports will lose more than 50 percent of their commercial service in the second half of this year compared to the equivalent period in 2019, according to Flight Data Inc.

Some have lost commercial flights entirely. American Airlines announced on Tuesday it would drop its regional service to Dubuque, Iowa, leaving the airport with no other commercial carriers.

The cutback marks the fourth regional airport that has lost all its commercial flights since late 2019, according to Flight Data Inc.

Richard Howell, the executive director of Williamsport Regional Airport in Pennsylvania, told The Hill that the airport lost its commercial service in September.

Howell said he believes there is now strong enough demand for commercial service to return, but airlines so far have declined as a result of high oil prices and the pilot shortage.

“As long as those jets are in the desert, markets our size are going to be challenged to bring service back,” Howell said.

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