Major U.S. airlines operate with fewer pilots and flight attendants than before the pandemic. With domestic airline reservations almost back to normal, airlines are trying to do more with less this holiday season.
Service crashes in October on Southwest Airlines and American show what happens when schedules are disrupted without the staffing levels needed to quickly recover from canceled flights. Problems quickly cascade down, resulting in hundreds of additional cancellations.
“I think all the airlines are stretched,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “A snowstorm or a major event could lead to prolonged delays and cancellations.”
And anyone who has their flight canceled will have trouble finding an alternative way to get where they are going.
“If there are problems, it will again accommodate people whose canceled flights will be difficult. The planes are very full,” said Savi Syth, an analyst at Raymond James Airlines.
Lack of staff
Airlines that have recently suffered service outages admitted they did not have enough staff to deal with the problems.
Bob Jordan, who will become general manager of Southwest early next year, told investors last month that weather and air traffic control problems caused “a significant number of crews and aircraft to be out of action. position and then it took several days to recover. ”
“We annoyed thousands of customers and further challenged our stellar employees,” he said. “And I just want to apologize to both our customers and our employees.”
Jordan said Southwest is making additional cuts to its schedule to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
When air traffic stopped almost during the first months of the pandemic, all airlines used early retirement packages and purchases to voluntarily reduce staff. Everyone is struggling to incorporate staff now, but it takes time to hire, train and certify pilots and flight attendants, so much of the current recruitment is being done with a focus on the summer travel season. coming, not this fall and winter, Syth said.
All airlines say they are prepared to deal with weather disruptions or other issues such as air traffic control.
“To ensure we offer certainty to both our customers and team members, we are doubling our efforts related to our schedule and staff,” David Seymour, chief operating officer of American, said in a note to airline staff. “In the area of programming, we have made sure that our November and December are designed to meet customer demand and that they are fully compatible with our staff.”
But Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the American pilots’ union and an active pilot, said he was concerned that the American was reducing its staff too much.
“We want to do those flights. But the tests earlier this year show what happens when things don’t go as planned,” he said. “They’re building the schedule with as many flights as possible and it doesn’t offer flexibility for when things go wrong. The planes don’t fly with hope.”
Southwest is trying to operate its current schedule with 15% fewer pilots than before the pandemic, according to Murray, although the number of flights has not dropped much. This leaves much less ability to recover when problems arise.
Overall, the number of domestic flights scheduled from last weekend until just after New Year’s Day has dropped 12% compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from Cirium, a data tracking service of airlines.
Among the four major U.S. airlines that handle about 80 percent of air traffic, Southwest and American have the most aggressive schedules compared to their pre-pandemic levels. The number of flights has dropped just 10% in Southwest and 9% in American, while Delta and United have dropped more than 13% compared to 2019.
United and Delta executives say their more limited hours should allow them to avoid the service problems experienced in Southwest and American earlier this fall.
“If we wanted to be bigger than we are, we honestly couldn’t be. We could be a little, maybe, but not much bigger without risking operational performance issues like you’ve seen in some of the [the] other carriers, “Delta President Glen Hauenstein told investors last month.” So we want to stay where we’re sure we can really do the schedules we posted. ”
“Our North Star in this recovery makes sure we do the right thing for customers and if that means sacrificing some potential short-term profits to ensure a reliable operation, so be it,” said United CEO Scott Kirby, in a letter to customers. explaining the reduced schedule of his airline.
Murray, the head of the Southwest Pilots Union, says his airline has made changes to its operations since the service merged in October that resulted in the cancellation of 2,000 flights during a week and tens of thousands of stranded passengers.
“I’m not as worried as I have been all summer,” he said.