Even months later, Ashley Wright Slegers remembers it as if it happened yesterday: the 10 p.m. text announcing her early-morning flight was canceled. Then came the scramble to rebook, only to discover Southwest Airlines had no flights to Cleveland in time for the wedding she was hired to photograph.
Mindful of these questions, several U.S. airlines are pledging a renewed focus on reliability to avoid flight disruptions in the coming months, even as uncertainties regarding staffing shortages and fuel prices linger.
Demand for airline seats is the strongest since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and is likely to grow through the busy summer travel season. Airlines also are aware of the optics of canceled flights and stranded passengers after the industry received billions of dollars in pandemic relief, prompting a different approach this summer — one of proactive measures, trimmed schedules and added service to the busiest routes.
“The industry is trying to be on its best behavior while pushing the limits of rapid growth,” said aviation analyst Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consulting firm.
It will be a delicate balance. Critical to the renewed effort will be hiring.
The industry received billions in pandemic relief funds to keep front-line workers on the job. While the Payroll Support Program barred airlines from laying off workers, it did not prevent them from offering incentives that encouraged employees to voluntarily leave the company. Industry employment fell by 50,000, leaving airlines short-staffed when travel demand rebounded last year.
The disruptions drew the scrutiny of lawmakers, who questioned why the industry seemed unprepared for the air travel demand after receiving money to keep employees on the job.
“We’re ready for the summer and we have sized the airline for the resources we have available,” Robert Isom, chief executive of American Airlines, said during a recent earnings call. Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein made a similar summer pledge, saying, “The priority is to operate reliably.”
Delta said it hired more than 10,000 employees in 2021 and about 4,000 so far this year. Hours-long wait times to its call centers — a chief complaint among customers last summer — have been reduced to an average of 30 minutes, executives say.
American, the nation’s largest air carrier, has added 12,000 employees since last summer, while United Airlines has hired 6,000 workers this year and is hiring about 200 pilots a month. Southwest has a net gain of 5,000 employees so far this year, part of its plan to add more than 10,000 new employees in 2022.
The hiring spree, however, isn’t enough to restore operations to pre-pandemic levels. Executives at Alaska Airlines said even with 2,600 new employees this year, it is difficult to train pilots quickly enough — a sentiment shared by other carriers.
Jeff Pelletier, managing director of Airline Data Inc., said his analysis shows the five largest U.S. carriers have reduced scheduled departures between June and September this year by about 7.5 percent compared with offerings from two months ago. While rising fuel prices are a concern, he said it is staffing — particularly for pilots — that remains the largest driver of decisions.
“That pullback over the past two months is indicative, in my opinion, of the airlines recognizing that they have a cap in those resources and it is something that they might as well plan for now rather than later,” Pelletier said.
Looking back, airline executives said they miscalculated the effect that vaccines and new coronavirus variants would have on demand and their own staffing. The data-driven industry had no models for navigating a global pandemic that nearly grounded air travel.
American Airlines’ ramp-up last summer was the largest in the carrier’s history but not without problems. After running into operational difficulties, the carrier reduced its schedule last July.
“This fast growth presented challenges we’ve never experienced before, but ones we aggressively addressed and learned from,” said American spokeswoman Sarah Jantz.
Southwest also faced obstacles as it tried to meet growing demand — learning lessons executives say they will apply in the months to come.
“There were lots of challenges that created a situation where people just couldn’t behave in this pandemic world like they did pre-pandemic,” Mike Van de Ven, chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines, said on a recent earnings call. “When we went into the summer … we should have had more staffing available or less capacity out there to navigate through that better.”
As Southwest approaches this summer, the airline has a better handle on what to expect and more employees to handle the disruptions, said Bob Jordan, Southwest’s chief executive.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect, but I think our ability to manage the summer and our belief that the summer is going to be much more reliable from an operational perspective is much better here in 2022 than it was in 2021,” he said.
Airlines emphasized they are not alone in trying to meet the demand for summer travel. Other critical elements of the aviation system — the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and airline contractors — also are trying to recover.
“We’re realizing that the whole infrastructure is not set up to snap back to these rapid growth rates,” Scott Kirby, chief executive of United Airlines, recently told industry analysts. “All of those constraints get in the way of a reliable schedule.”
Florida became a popular destination as demand for leisure travel rebounded during the pandemic, but weather, air traffic control and other issues made the state an epicenter for high-profile meltdowns responsible for thousands of canceled flights.
FAA officials this month met with representatives from a dozen airlines to discuss how to keep air traffic moving in the region. The FAA said it will add staffing and allow airlines to use alternate routes and altitudes to keep aircraft moving when airspace is constrained.
The agency also said National Weather Service meteorologists at its air traffic centers can now provide more precise weather predictions for routes in the busiest parts of U.S. airspace, a move it said could reduce delays for travelers. TSA officials said they too are preparing for a busy summer, hosting hiring events and recruiting for seasonal demand.
Industry leaders also say the lifting of a federal mask mandate for transportation should ease tensions in the air, even as it has created anxiety for those with compromised immune systems and other travelers.
New challenges have also emerged since last summer. The nation continues to wrestle with coronavirus variants and rising fuel prices — the industry’s second-largest expense. And nearly seven months after federal pandemic aid expired, airlines are still scrambling to fill critical jobs in a tight labor market that has pushed up wages.
Employees who have worked throughout the pandemic are increasingly vocal about the recent strains on front-line workers.
In a recent letter to Southwest executives, the union representing the carrier’s pilots raised concerns about stress and working conditions more than two years into the pandemic. Pilots at Delta, Alaska and American have raised similar issues with management.
“Our customers deserve better and we want the airline to be successful,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilots Association, said in an interview. “We have turned from a company that supports its employees to a company that’s supported by its employees. There is a lot of stress and we are going to lose people.”
Many flight attendants, many of whom faced the ire of passengers over masks, share a similar sentiment.
“It’s been ‘Oh, make it work. Oh, make it work,’ so we put a smile on our face and make it work,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest flight attendants. “But now we just can’t. There have been too many storms — weather and real-life storms.”
Southwest said in a statement that reports of crew fatigue have begun to decline as new employees have been hired. The additional staffing also will enable the carrier to recover more quickly when disruptions do occur, the company said.
Despite the pre-summer preparations, analysts say summer 2022 could be a hold-your-breath situation filled with unknowns.
“I’d like to think it’s all going to go well, but realistically, you know, we’re going to have weather like we always do and we’re going to have crew shortages at the end of every calendar month like we always do,” Mann said. “And some of that is going to be problematic.”
The problems of last year continue to be top of mind for many travelers, prompting some to reconsider their options or plan ahead in other ways. Shelton, a chemistry professor at Texas A&M University at San Antonio, said choices are fewer and fares are higher, which might prompt him to drive.
Wright Slegers, the wedding photographer, eventually found her way to Cleveland last August, but the ticket on Delta was $160 more and required a 2½-hour drive from Omaha — where her Southwest flight originally was scheduled to depart — to Des Moines. She has lined up a backup plan in the event that an upcoming flight doesn’t leave the ground.
“I have decided to fly-in several days early so if anything happens, I am able to find a reschedule option,” Wright Slegers wrote in an email. “I also have researched other possible backup flight options.”