Staff Shortages Disrupt Airlines as Summer Travel Season Takes Off

Don’t expect the flight cancellations and delays that plagued the July Fourth weekend to end any time soon.

Ravi Sarathy, professor of international business and strategy at Northeastern University, says cancellations, delays and the escalating cost of flights will probably get worse before they get better. Labor shortages and bad weather will continue to create turbulence in the industry, he says.

“Until they resolve the staffing shortages, it probably won’t get better,” Sarathy says.

Northeastern Professor of International Business and Strategy Ravi Sarathy poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

There were more than 2,000 domestic flight cancellations over the July Fourth weekend. On July 5, nearly 600 more were canceled and about 5,500 were delayed, according to FlightAware, a company that tracks the airline industry. The disruptions continued through the rest of the week, with about 300 cancellations and 5,000 delays each day.

So far this year, the cancellation rate has been about 3%, says Kathleen Bangs, a spokesperson for FlightAware. By comparison, she says, the cancellation rate in 2019 was less than 2%, but went up to 12% in 2020 during the pandemic.

The high volume of summer flights has put a huge burden on the airlines, which reduced staff, planes and flights during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many industries, airlines are also facing inflationary issues, including fuel costs that have more than doubled over the last year.

“Many airline personnel — from baggage handlers to pilots — took buyouts, furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic, as airlines’ load factors hit 20% to 30%, and half-empty planes were losing money,” Sarathy says.

Airline industry employment is on the rebound since the pandemic, but numbers still lag behind pre-pandemic totals.

In February of 2020, passenger airline employment was at a peak of 458,200 jobs, according to Airlines for America, an airline trade association and lobbying group. The pandemic low point was in November of 2020 at 364,500 jobs. In April of this year, the total climbed to 445,600, still short of pre-pandemic numbers.

Bangs says the staffing shortage is the reason for the recent delays and cancellations. She says the onboarding process for new employees is slow because of background checks and training.

“The demand for travel came surging back but it’s like turning around a battleship,” she says.

Pilots who took a buyout or early retirement during the pandemic would have to start at the bottom of the seniority list if they wanted to come back, Bangs says, so that can be a deterrent to returning to the job.

“I think they’ve had a harder time attracting people than they thought they would,” Bangs says.

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