SOUTH BEND — Dana Sandoval of Cassopolis gets nervous that her flight will be canceled and she’ll be stuck in one of the numerous cities she connects to flying out of South Bend when she travels to visit her husband’s family in Guatemala twice a year.
She’s been stuck in Chicago and Houston in recent years because of delayed and canceled flights. So when she was looking at flight prices last month, she took the South Shore train and flew nonstop out of Chicago not only to save money but also ease her worries.
“It’s a process though,” she said of traveling to Chicago to fly.
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Sandoval is not alone in facing fewer and pricier flight options. As demand for travel has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, the aviation industry has had trouble keeping up. Through July 18, South Bend International Airport had 6,459 scheduled flights this year, compared to 8,619 during the same time in 2019, which can create more headaches if occasional delays and cancellations happen.
The numbers represent a national labor shortage, Mike Daigle, the airport’s CEO, said, but locally, the airport is surviving by not losing any of its destinations and maintaining steady employment at the airport itself.
Scheduled flights still low as travel rebounds
Fewer scheduled flights this year are a result of a national crew availability shortage — an issue that could take years to fix as national airlines laid off thousands of pilots and flight attendants during the drastic dip in travel in the early stages of the pandemic. As travel picked up once again, there weren’t enough front-line workers employed to keep up.
So far in 2022, there have been 25% fewer scheduled flights out of the airport through July 18 compared to 2019, according to data provided to The Tribune by FlightAware. Nationally, scheduled flights have decreased by 14% in 2022 compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Jeff Rea, president of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, said there is some concern that when there’s only so many people able to fly planes, they’re going to fly the busiest routes.
“South Bend certainly has some busy routes, but not the really busy routes that some airports have access to,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Authority reported South Bend International as the 143rd busiest airport in 2021, with 341,343 passengers who boarded a plane.
This summer, South Bend International Airport has had days where the number of passengers traveling through the facility has been over 100% of the expected daily “normal,” signaling a boost in travel not seen since before the pandemic.
“We are ahead of the summer of 2021,” Daigle said. “We’ve seen only in the last five, six weeks of just a slight downturn, and it goes back to, I think, equipment availability.”
Delays out of the airport have stayed close to pre-pandemic rates of 17% delayed flights in 2019, with just a 3% increase in 2022. Meanwhile, cancellations decreased slightly from 2.7% to 2.6%.
Many of the delays and cancellations locally are a result of delays at larger hubs connecting to South Bend, Daigle said. Cancellations specifically have been a larger problem this summer when there are fewer scheduled flights to place travelers on.
“The people that can be re-accommodated on later flights during the day, they will be accommodated by the airline staff,” Daigle said. “But sometimes there’s just not enough seats.”
Delta and United Airlines, two carriers at South Bend, cut 100 and 50 daily flights, respectively, across the country during the summer travel season.
As crew availability became dire, airlines began pulling out of some markets completely — something Daigle was not worried about happening to any of the four airlines that fly into South Bend.
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“When we look at how (the airlines’) load factors are, how many seats on the airplane people are actually sitting in versus empty seats. They do very, very well in South Bend,” he said. “We don’t believe there’s any indication or thought process to have any of them leave our market.”
American Airlines, another carrier at the airport, is set to end service to four regional cities Sept. 1, citing a regional pilot shortage. American will continue to offer its daily flights out of South Bend to Dallas/Fort Worth and to Charlotte.
It’s unclear when airlines will get reprieved from a crew shortage, Daigle said, as some airlines he’s talked to think improvement is a year away while others forecast that it’ll be much longer.
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When the airport received $7.2 million in federal relief money in April 2020, most of the money contributed to paying employees’ salaries to avoid furloughs and layoffs, Daigle told The Tribune.
While the airport relies on its servicing airlines to provide workers to operate aircraft, handle luggage and man check-in counters, South Bend International itself employs the airport’s public safety, operations and maintenance staff — all of whom had to keep working during the pandemic.
“We took care of our team members because we still had to operate as an airport,” Daigle said.
Although the national industry could take years to rebound, South Bend schools are promoting aviation jobs locally and nationally through the district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Aviation Flight and Operations program.
The two-year CTE course partners with the airport to provide hands-on training at South Bend International and prepares high school graduates to enter a number of aviation roles, including aircraft dispatchers, flight attendants and ground operation agents. Students also earn up to 20 dual credits through Ivy Tech that can be built on in post-secondary education.
Just entering its third year, CTE Aviation has graduated two students and currently has about 20 to 25 students enrolled, CTE Director Amanda Russell said. Of the two graduated students, one went on to Purdue University to study aviation technology while the other got a job at the South Bend airport.
“We’re very community-based, and we know that there’s a pilot shortage and that there has been for a while,” Russell said, noting that the program takes the economic impact of staffing the regional airport very seriously.
Although becoming a pilot is one option introduced in the program, Russell says, just as much emphasis is placed on the lesser-known jobs.
Passengers grapple with high prices for flights from South Bend
Sarah and Ricky Herrera of Dallas flew into South Bend in late July to visit relatives in Michigan. The family visits often but said they noticed significantly fewer options this summer for a direct flight. And with fewer flight options, prices were obscenely high for both.
“Oh, prices were up a lot,” Sarah said.
But, with the pair having only one week of summer they could visit, they had to eat the cost.
“The only time we could come was this week,” Ricky said.
Sandoval also couldn’t choose when she flew out of the region, as she had to make it to Guatemala for her sister-in-law’s wedding. She said she and her husband go to the country about twice a year and usually try to fly out of South Bend.
This summer, when the regional flights were about $200 more than flying out of Chicago, Sandoval decided to take the South Shore line and fly out of O’Hare. Flying nonstop out of O’Hare also makes Sandoval less stressed about missing her connecting flight.
“I’ve never had any issues (at South Bend),” she said, “It’s just that the larger cities are these clusters of chaos. I feel like everyone has a ripple effect.”
Rea said one way the airport tries to help travelers through rising prices is through the trip cost calculator on the airport’s website. The calculator factors in flight prices, gas money, tolls, hotel stays, and more to output a better cost comparison between South Bend, Midway and O’Hare.
Sometimes, the best financial choice isn’t to fly out of South Bend, Rea said, but he works with the airport to promote supporting the local economy.
“People have a lot of different options close by,” Rea said. “But boy, the size, the convenience, the time it takes to get through security and to be in South Bend, it’s hard to beat.”
Follow Alysa Guffey on Twitter @AlysaGuffeyNews.