When will the ‘flightmare’ end? Airlines may not fully catch up until 2024

But it can only go up from here, right?

Summer is usually a tricky season for flying thanks to lots of demand and worse weather, Adam Gordon, a managing director at Boston Consulting Group, told Insider. Add in the lingering effects of a global pandemic and two years of delayed plans and you’ve got a sure recipe for disaster.

This fall will reveal if the summer’s chaos was a temporary setback as a sprawling industry clawed its way back from near decimation or if there are more systemic issues at play.

“It’s easy to forget how dramatically airlines had to reduce capacity to weather the early part of the pandemic,” Gordon said. “Ramping the operation back up is no small feat and the operational challenges we’ve seen recently are mostly a result of this complexity rather than planning or execution failures on the part of the airlines.”

It’s no secret that hiring is one of the major challenges that have prevented airlines’ full recovery, but it’s not a problem solved by simply sending offer letters.

New employees at airlines and airports must be trained which can take up to 13 weeks depending on the position and retained, which has proven a challenge as many new hires quit months into the job, Harteveldt said.

“With every month that goes by, the airline industry graduates that many more pilots which helps reduce the pilot shortage and they are hiring that many more workers and getting them trained and on the job,” he said.

To help ensure there aren’t more flights than airlines are realistically able to staff, major US carriers are slashing up to 31,000 flights from their November schedules to create more “buffer” room in the system, as United CEO Scott Kirby explained in July.

“There is weather and people do call in sick, and sometimes, the jetbridge breaks and the power goes out for 20 minutes,” he said. “The system just doesn’t have any buffer to deal with that. And that’s, at its core, why we pulled the schedule down to create more buffer.”

As US carriers overhire and cut routes, Harteveldt said he expects “that 2023 will be a better year for the industry than 2022.”

“But what I’ve heard from a number of folks within airlines is that they believe that things may not return to normal until as late as 2024,” he continued.

Airline CEOs are slightly more optimistic. Delta’s Ed Bastian said in July the company aims to be back to “100%” by Summer 2023 but warned that a goal post may move “depending on what we see in the economy.”

Ironically, an increased economic slowdown could be beneficial for the recovery of airline operations, Harteveldt told Insider.

“If the US economy sees a material weakening, whether it’s a slowdown in growth or even a recession, it’s very possible we may see demand for air travel decline and that decline in demand may relieve some of the pressure on airlines to operate flights,” he said, adding that it would give the industry an opportunity “to play catch up” on hiring.

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