As Fourth of July travel chaos looms, experts are warning that a combination of factors including pilot shortages, the climate crisis and even the rise of drones means the situation is unlikely to get better soon.
Over the Memorial Day and Juneteenth holiday weekends more than 3,000 flights were canceled and more than 19,000 were delayed. About 1,800 flights have been canceled so far this week, according to the Hill.
Travelers can expect yet more difficulties this weekend – and more to come, said airline industry expert Robert Mann.
“It’s a complicated situation, and nobody has clean hands except the customers who bought tickets thinking they were going on vacation or flying for business,” said Mann.
The airlines received $54bn in relief funds during the pandemic and politicians including the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Bernie Sanders have questioned why they have been so ill-prepared for the post-pandemic travel boom. Sanders is calling for fines to be imposed.
Despite promises to keep staff in return for the bailouts, airlines have laid off thousands of workers and pilot shortages are often described as the primary reason for recent issues.
There are structural and regulatory reasons for the shortages too. Pilots are not being trained and certified in the numbers they once were, and many are approaching mandatory retirement age, already pushed from 60 to 65, a figure that could now be pushed higher still. Another issue is that the military is not producing pilots in the numbers it once did, in part because of the increasing use of drones and other strategic decisions.
Regulatory changes have played a part too. After Colgan Airlines Flight 3407 crashed over Buffalo in 2009, killing 49 people, Congress raised the number of flight hours required for pilot certification from 250 hours to 1,500 hours, a move that has been criticized by some airline executives.
“The bottom line is that we’re not producing as many pilots as we did in the 70s and 80s when many were coming out of the service post-Vietnam,” Mann said. “And how do you get to 1,500 hours? Everyone is looking for a shortcut.”
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits on monthly flying hours are also likely to add to shortages. The holiday falls at the end of June, meaning that many pilots may have already maximized their weekly or monthly quotas. Airlines have issued calls for volunteer pilots, offering in some cases triple pay.
On top of this, airlines that laid-off pilots and staff during the pandemic, thinking that they could rehire new ones for less when needed, and retired older planes, resulting in new training requirements for newer planes.
But training resources, too, are stretched. “So you get rid of entire fleets, and now entire crews have to be retrained,” said Mann. “Retire one senior pilot and you create six or seven training events.”
Compounding pilot shortage is a lack of airport staff – whether ground crew, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff, or Starbucks employees. Every employee inside the secure area of an airport, including TSA and customs and border officers, have to be credentialed – a process that can now take up to two months.
Delta pilots picketed in Atlanta on Thursday to demand better working conditions, with many saying they are working overtime despite flights across the country being canceled. “As pilots, we are beyond exhausted – they are trying to get us to fly to the maximums,” said Dennis Tajer of the Allied Pilots Association.
The Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa) recently posted an open letter to the thousands of Delta passengers caught up in waves of delays and cancellations. “It’s disheartening to see customers waiting in long lines to rebook flights due to scheduling issues that could have been prevented,” said the Delta Alpa chairman, Capt Jason Ambrosi.
American Airlines pilots recently displayed signs near the New York Stock Exchange that read: “Frustrated with AA? So are we.” Around 1,300 uniformed Southwest Airlines pilots held signs at Dallas Love Field airport to protest inadequate pay and poor working conditions.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (Swapa), representing more than 9,000 pilots, says his pilots lost 20,000 days off due to schedule mismanagement over the last year and work has become a “flightmare”.
But there are other problems too.
Even after flights are canceled, booking a new flight can be onerous. Mobile apps are struggling to process changes and call centers are overwhelmed on disrupted days, causing hours-long hold times.
American Airlines’ hold times in mid-June were the highest it has seen over the last several weeks and were caused by “widespread weather and ATC [air-traffic control] issues.”
And those weather events tell another – worrying – story. The climate crisis is increasing the intensity and frequency of severe weather. Higher air temperatures and drier conditions alter payload maximums and required runway lengths for take-off.
“We’re seeing more unpredictable high-energy weather events in unpredictable locations that last longer, so it’s hard to say it’s not having an effect,” says Mann.
Atlanta, America’s busiest airport, was shut down for a whole day last winter for lack of deicing equipment it has never previously needed. Extreme temperatures are already causing flight cancellations in the US. “They have to wait until the sun goes down, the temperature drops, and they can take off,” Mann said.
Even at an airport like New York’s LaGuardia, where departing flights typically go no more than 1,500 miles, the combination of runway length, payload and temperature can force airlines to offload passengers or baggage to get the take-off weight down.
“As temperatures increase, there are going to be more occasions, at more places, where certain flights are going to have to take payload limitations or stop en route because they had to short-load the fuel,” Mann added.
So this weekend, if you are sitting in an airport lounge for hours, or later in the summer when disruptions intensify, spare a thought for complications involved. “There are so many issues combined to create this and that’s just in the US,” Mann said. “In Europe it’s worse.”
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