Much of the problem stems from an industrywide labor shortage. After the aviation industry was decimated in 2020 by covid-19, US airlines received $54 billion in pandemic aid. Overestimating how long it would take for travel to scale back up, they offered older employees retirement packages and gave many workers temporary leaves of absence. Now they are struggling to train and certify new pilots quickly enough. Federal data suggests that the airlines were the biggest reason for flight delays in the United States from January to May, and are responsible for a significant number of cancellations.
Airlines, however, do not bear sole responsibility. Most organizations working in air travel had to cut back on staffing or pause hiring in 2020. That has led to shortages in airport staff, baggage handlers, security and more. Employers are trying to rapidly hire and train workers, but many airport positions require security clearances. The air traffic control system has also seen staffing challenges in certain high-volume areas, caused in part by covid-19 outbreaks and a halt in training before vaccines were available. Because air travel is deeply interconnected, issues in one airport can lead to delays and cancellations downstream, overwhelming the system.
Some lawmakers have called for the Transportation Department to use its powers on consumer protection to crack down on air carriers. In fact, the department has opened 20 investigations into airlines for failing to pay back refunds efficiently. Authorities should enforce rules if any have been violated, but investigations take time and may not always produce the desired results.
In a June meeting, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed airline executives to ensure summer flight schedules were operable. Airlines, to their credit, have cut their schedules by 16 percent since the spring, and flight cancellations have decreased since mid-June. Yet that does not address the longer-term questions of capacity.
Airlines, airports and authorities must work together to fix the structural issues exposed by this summer’s disorder. The pilot shortage was a concern even before the pandemic. Carriers and the federal government should find ways to lower the barriers to entry to training programs and certification, which are time-consuming and costly. It’s also time to look closely at recruitment and retention in airport and ground services, jobs that are often low-paying and labor-intensive with unattractive schedules.
The air travel industry, like much of our economy, was unprepared for the disruption from covid-19. By acting now, it could be more resilient in the face of future crises.