A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 17, 2022

Why So Many Airline Flights Continue To Be Cancelled Without Warning

Airlines globally are overselling to profit from post-pandemic travel demand despite knowing they are understaffed and cannot service the flights they have sold.

The airlines were quick to furlough pilots and other key staff during the pandemic and many of those have found other jobs. Now the airlines are faced with a dramatic rise in reservations and are providing more flights but dont have the people to man them, even as pilots' unions offer data revealing their members are working unprecedented amounts of overtime. The airlines need to cut back their schedules until staffing has can match demand rather than grabbing flyers reservation money, then cutting schedules but predatorily offering credits rather than refunds. JL   

BBC News and David Koening reports in the Associated Press:

Airlines canceled 1,500 flights in the U.S. on Thursday, one of the worst days yet for travel, less than three weeks after airlines kicked off the summer travel season by canceling 2,800 flights around Memorial Day weekend. At LaGuardia Aiport in New York Thursday 33% of flights were cancelled, and 25% of flights were dropped at Newark Airport in New Jersey. Shortages of workers, especially pilots, that are hurting the ability to operate all  planned flights. Airlines were too slow to replace pilots who retired during the the pandemic. (Officials) pushed airlines to examine whether they can handle the schedules they have published.Airlines canceled more than 1,500 flights in the U.S. on Thursday, one of the worst days yet for travel as the peak summer vacation season heats up.

At LaGuardia Airport in New York, more than one-third of all flights were scrubbed, and more than one-fourth of flights were dropped at nearby Newark Liberty airport in New Jersey, according to tracking service FlightAware.

The cancellations came less than three weeks after airlines kicked off the summer travel season by canceling about 2,800 flights in a five-day stretch around the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

And they happened as airline CEOs held a virtual meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — a sign of the Biden administration's concern about the prospect of snarled airports and unhappy travelers this summer.

“I let them know that this is a moment when we are really counting on them to deliver reliably for the traveling public,” Buttigieg told NBC News.

During the meeting, which took place by videoconference, Buttigieg asked the CEOs to describe steps they are taking to operate smoothly over the July 4 holiday and the rest of the summer, according to a person familiar with the call but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Buttigieg also pushed airlines to examine whether they can handle the schedules that they have published, and to improve customer service, the person said.

The head of trade group Airlines for America, Nicholas Calio, said in a statement that industry officials appreciated the chance to talk with Buttigieg and “discuss our shared commitment to prioritizing the safety and security of all travelers.”

Airlines are struggling with shortages of workers, especially pilots, that are hurting their ability to operate all their planned flights. Pilot unions at Delta, American and Southwest have said their airlines were too slow to replace pilots who retired or took leaves of absence during the early part of the pandemic.

Two Senate Democrats said this month that the holiday weekend performance “raises questions about airline decision-making.” Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts said delays and cancellations “are occurring so frequently that they are becoming an almost-expected part of travel.”

The airlines blame bad weather and the Federal Aviation Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department that manages the nation’s airspace. In a letter to the senators, Calio ticked off a long list of FAA delays and staffing problems over the holiday weekend.

The airlines have jousted with the FAA this spring over delays in Florida, where air travel recovered more quickly than in many other parts of the country. After meeting with airline representatives in May, the FAA agreed to increase staffing at an air-traffic control center near Jacksonville and make other changes.

Concern about flight problems comes as the number of air travelers in the U.S. pushes above 2.2 million a day. That is still about 300,000 fewer per day than in mid-June 2019, but crowds will grow over the next several weeks and almost certainly break the pandemic-era record set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

Bottlenecks could pop up at gateway airports where travelers enter the United States. Last weekend, the Biden administration dropped a 16-month requirement that people test negative for COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the U.S. That decision is expected to boost international travel — United Airlines said Monday that it saw an immediate increase in searches for overseas flights.

Another threat: The FAA is urging airlines to quickly upgrade equipment that might be vulnerable to radio interference from new wireless service. The agency’s acting administrator, Billy Nolen, told airlines Wednesday that Verizon and AT&T plan to turn on hundreds of 5G C-band transmitters near airports on July 5.

Dire forecasts of fallout from the wireless companies’ initial C-band service failed to come true early this year. Still, Nolen said FAA can’t promise that there won’t be problems with some planes. He said industry officials have found a way to retrofit many planes with problematic gear by the end of the year and others in 2023.

Shares of the largest six U.S. airlines dropped between 6% and 9% on Thursday, as jitters about the economy sent the broader market tumbling.

Flight cancellations and airport delays are expected to continue over the next few months, affecting summer holiday plans.

Airlines have been told by the government and regulator to cancel the flights they won't be able to deliver now, to avoid a return to the chaos seen in May and June.

Gatwick Airport is cutting the number of flight slots during the peak summer months.

One of the main issues is staff shortages, although the government and industry disagree about who is to blame for the problem.

How bad are the staff shortages?

Covid restrictions in the UK and across the globe were hugely challenging for the travel industry.

Airlines UK, the industry body for airlines registered here, said airlines have cut about 30,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic, having employed 74,000 people in 2019.

Thousands of jobs have also been cut from airports and aviation support activities, which used to employ another 66,000 people.

In June 2020, for example, Swissport, which had about 8,500 staff at UK airports - including baggage handlers and security personnel - announced it would halve its workforce.

Unions have said that many airport staff who were laid off after the start of the pandemic have since taken jobs in other sectors.

The Office for National Statistics said that there were a record 1,295,000 job vacancies in the UK between February and April 2022.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary also pointed out that Brexit has made it harder for the industry to bring in European workers to fill gaps.

What's happening about vetting?

Airport staff need security clearance from both the Civil Aviation Authority and the government to be able to do their jobs.

There have been reports that the vetting process has been taking considerably longer than usual.

Swissport's UK boss, Jude Winstanley, said the company has hired 3,000 people since January, but many of them still don't have full security clearance, which limits the duties they can carry out.

However, the Cabinet Office told BBC News: "There are absolutely no delays to security vetting of applicants.

"It is wrong to suggest otherwise, and we are prioritising vetting applications from the aviation industry."

The government did change the rules at the end of April to allow new staff to receive training while waiting for their final clearance.

Did anyone see these problems coming?

Demand for travel has grown sharply since final restrictions for passengers entering the UK were lifted on 18 March.

The TUC has accused the government of failing to properly prepare the airline industry for the end of lockdown.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps accused airlines and operators of "seriously [overselling] flights and holidays".

But Conservative MP Huw Merriman, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, told the BBC that airlines have a requirement set by the government to use 70% of their airport slots or risk losing them.

He said they have no choice but to try to operate at these levels, despite the staffing pressures.

Gemma Antrobus from the Association of Independent Tour Operators blamed a lack of sector-specific support since the start of the pandemic:

"Getting back to those levels of staffing, of training, is not as quick and as simple as just a flick of a light switch."

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said ministers and industry must also address "chronic low pay" in the sector.

The government said it had given £8bn of support to the industry during the pandemic.

This included help under the furlough scheme, loan guarantees and the Airport and Ground Operations Support Scheme, which offered £4m grants to airports and companies providing them with services such as maintenance and cleaning.

When will things improve?

According to the aviation regulator, up to 4% of UK flights were cancelled during half term and the Platinum Jubilee weekend - compared to the usual rate of 1%.

Airlines and unions have told MPs on the Commons Business Committee that the problems are likely to continue this summer.

Advantage Travel Partnership - a network of travel agents - said 30% of its members are already fielding calls from holidaymakers concerned about future bookings.

If they are not, it says flights should be cancelled as soon as possible, to avoid large-scale, last-minute cancellations.

Firms were also told to make sure customers were kept informed about their rights during any disruption.

Gatwick will be reducing its number of daily flights to 825 in July and 850 in August, down from 900 in previous years.

It said it had taken the decision to temporarily reduce flights following a review of its operations, to help passengers "experience a more reliable and better standard of service".

Are other countries having similar issues?

Disruption is not limited to the UK.

There have also been problems at other European airports because of staff shortages in recent weeks, including Amsterdam's Schiphol and also Dublin.

However, Health Secretary Sajid Javid questioned why other major European countries like Germany and Italy hadn't seen the same scale of problems as the UK.

He said it was "about time the industry took some more responsibility for sorting its own challenges out".


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