Winter flight disruptions exacerbated by Covid-related staffing shortages continue to plague the U.S. airline industry. This is making for an unprecedented challenge for route planners charged with optimizing aircraft utilization while minimizing inconvenience for the traveling public. The industry’s experience over recent weeks, peaking around the Christmas and New Year holidays, might suggest that a so-called perfect storm has overloaded staffing capacity that has long been depleted by a widely acknowledged dearth of qualified pilots.
Thankfully, cancellations have tapered this week, falling to 684 on January 11 from a peak of 3,312 on January 3. Still, the fundamental weaknesses that led to a total of more than 33,000 canceled flights over the last month remain in place, putting airlines in a precarious position, especially given the likelihood of further virus variants causing flight crew to isolate at home. Today, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told ABC News that the carrier still has 3,000 employees off work with Covid.
Of course, some categories of airlines have suffered more than others. The nation’s major airlines have cut service at their regional affiliates as they seek to stabilize networks depleted by flight crew shortages. As a result, smaller communities across the U.S. have seen the most severe service cuts, leaving many with few options for connecting with the nation’s air transportation system.
Regional Airline Association president Faye Malarkey Black conceded that the regional carriers face particularly difficult circumstances. “Our members are taking every step to reduce impacts and…do not make unilateral decisions on controllable cancelations,” she said. “Those decisions are often made by the major airlines that schedule them. Additionally, regionals also serve 94 percent of the airports with scheduled commercial air service, whereas major airlines only serve 34 percent of the nation’s airports directly. With a much more geographically diverse range of service, regionals are often the only source of air service into and out of a community. With fewer flights available, weather can make it more difficult to move crews and aircraft around after a disruption.”
Apart from the recent Omicron surge and weather, the festering problem of pilot shortages has prompted the majors to retract service from small communities. The resulting decline in frequencies and fewer destinations mean that everyday disruptions can have what Black called an outsized impact.
Meanwhile, the Covid-related acceleration of mainline pilot retirements brought on by Covid left the major airlines scrambling to fill those positions once domestic traffic returned with crews from their regional partners. “This is a natural career progression, but it is happening on steroids,” said Black. “At the same time, the pandemic also slowed new certificate issuances dramatically and far fewer new pilots qualified in 2021 and 2020 than in prior years.”
Black noted that she believes one solution lies with lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, with whom the RAA has worked hard to formulate legislation aimed at clearing a wider career path for those unable to pay for the needed training.
“Pilot careers are currently unattainable for many young people, who cannot finance pilot education costs that today exceed limits on federal student loans,” said Black. “RAA is backing higher education legislation that closes the gap. This policy fix would help more pilots access higher education needed for rewarding pilot careers, regardless of their financial background. Not only will this bring more pilots to the profession; it will make the pilot career path more equitable and inclusive.”
Another aspect of the unpredictable market conditions with which the airline industry must now contend involves the supply chain disruptions that effectively halved air cargo growth in November 2021. In a statement issued Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) noted that labor shortages partly due to Covid quarantines, insufficient storage space at some airports, and processing backlogs exacerbated by the year-end rush created supply chain disruptions. Several key airports, including New York’s JFK, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam Schiphol reported congestion.
“All economic indicators pointed towards continued strong demand, but the pressures of labor shortages and constraints across the logistics system unexpectedly resulted in lost growth opportunities,” said IATA director general Willie Walsh. “Manufacturers, for example, were unable to get vital goods to where they were needed, including PPE. Governments must act quickly to relieve pressure on global supply chains before it permanently dents the shape of the economic recovery from Covid-19.”