The Retired Investor: No End in Sight for Airline Agony
Missing bags, canceled flights, stranded passengers, and interminable check-in times have made this summers' travel a nightmare. What's worse, the cost of travelling has exploded.
Consumers are paying an average 34 percent higher air fares this year versus last. The reasons why range from higher jet fuel costs, increased labor costs and sky rocketing demand among others. As the summer season progresses, it seems that the worse the experience gets, the more consumers are willing to pay.
If you watch the horror shows on the news, chaos abounds not only here in the U.S. but in the international airline system overall. Short comings in one location, whether it be from the weather, labor shortages, lost baggage or some other cause, has an increasing domino effect that impacts airports and airline schedules throughout the country.
As the system continues to break down, airports and airlines are besieged from all sides from irate passengers to an increasingly concerned government. Readers who have firsthand experience or may be even now caught in this web of travel turmoil might ask a simple question. "How did we get here?"
The origin of this disaster has its roots in the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all know, the coronavirus devastated air travel worldwide. By 2020, airline travel was down a whopping 70 percent. To put that in perspective, the 9/11 attacks reduced travel by a mere 7 percent. For the airline industry overall, how to survive was the chief topic of conversation within corporate boardrooms.
The industry answer -- reduce employees, slash pilot headcount, sell aircraft, and retire older planes. Top airline managements were ruthless in their headcount. Delta and American Airlines, for example, laid off 30 percent of their staff, offering buyouts, early retirements or simply letting people go.
The common assumption among airline executives was that it would take five or six years to recover their former traffic. As such, managements continued to reduce their operating expenses to the bone. But the coronavirus did not occur in a vacuum. The government, together with the pharmaceutical sector, managed to develop several effective, COVID-19 vaccinations. That breakthrough reversed the six-year timetable.
The consumer suddenly became willing to fly. Travel demand turned around far faster than anyone expected, thanks to the government's vaccination efforts. The industry was caught completely off guard. But that was more than a year ago. Why is the industry still woefully unable to accommodate the surge in demand?
The scarcity of labor, which is plaguing the nation in general, is hurting airlines far more. Let's start with pilots. An army of experienced, older, industry pilots decided to retire, (or were asked to retire) and are gone forever. Hiring and bringing on entry-level pilots requires years of training.
In addition, there are myriad regulatory requirements such as clocking at least 1,500 hours of airtime before being allowed to pilot a commercial airplane. Oh, and by the way, those who train these newcomers (instructors and flight simulators) are also in scarce supply.
Hundreds of thousands of workers from cabin crews, to ground staff, to baggage handlers were also let go. Many of those ex-employees have either found new jobs or have no wish to rejoin an industry that kicked them out during the worst crisis this nation has seen in a hundred-plus years. Many of these former employees don't see the upside in a job that once again exposes them to the mutations of new COVID strains. They also have no wish to face armies of angry passengers in an industry where job security is no longer guaranteed, if it ever was.
Traditionally, airlines have depended on redundancy in their system to handle unpredictable disruptions. Think of it as insurance that if anything goes wrong, a back-up staff is there to handle it. Without the staff, airlines are at the mercy of every sudden storm, pilot absence or COVID-related sick day. Today, a sudden cancellation can cascade throughout not only one airline, but throughout the entire system.
Compounding the industry's labor shortages, are shortages of TSA and customs personnel, as well as air traffic controllers. This results in long lines that delay check-ins, which delay departures and arrivals, which keep planes waiting, and incoming passengers on planes, sometimes for hours.
I wish I could say that the chaos in air travel will pass with the summer travel season. The problem is that the labor shortages the industry faces cannot be solved overnight. Competition for workers will persist in the months ahead. Industry experts say the problems besetting the airline industry will continue into 2023.