If you listen to or watch news reports you’ve heard about the long lines at airports across the country as Americans, cooped up for more than a year, are ready to travel. Five minute waits to get through TSA security are now longer. Aircraft are packed. “It’s a travel nightmare out there.”
But the numbers show a different story. The actual number of people flying is down significantly from the levels before the pandemic lockdown started. Some airlines, especially American Airlines, are canceling or rescheduling flights even though we all saw the vaccines coming. What is going on here?
First, here are the numbers as of a couple weeks ago. The total number of flyers in the U.S. is down anywhere from 20-25% from the same period in 2019. Some of the reduction is attributed to international flights which still, for the most part, are shut down (essential travel only). And, business travel is nowhere near the levels pre-pandemic. Business folks haven’t returned to the office much less the cabin of a jetliner. It's the leisure traveler who has returned with a vengeance as vaccine availability grew and they headed to airports.. Some airlines say the number of those travelers has now reached pre-pandemic levels.
“I don’t think we anticipated how fast it would go,” says James Gregory of the Transportation Safety Administration. He added, “Some have referred to it as ‘revenge travel.’”
But some American Airlines passengers may be thinking about revenge after the airline was forced to cancel hundreds of flights. For the second half of June, American cancelled 50-60 flights a day. Then, preemptively, American announced that 946 flights won’t fly in the first two weeks of July. “We took this step to give us a little breathing room,” American Airlines spokesman Curtis Blessing told me.
American blames bad weather at some of its larger hubs and a “labor shortage.” It also made a nod to the “flood of flyers” in a statement characterizing it as, “the incredibly quick ramp-up of customer demand.” So the airline decided to wipe out those nearly 1,000 flights for the first half of July. It sounds huge, but Blessing says, “This amounts to a 1% reduction of operations” for the country’s largest carrier.
A union leader says American pilots could see the problems coming. “American built a schedule it couldn’t staff,” Capt. Dennis Tajer, head of the Communications Committee for the Allied Pilots Association, told Full Throttle. When pilots don’t fly for 6-12 months, they have to take a refresher course. American, says Tajer, furloughed 1,600 pilots during the pandemic. Trying to get all those pilots through the course and re-training pilots from aircraft which were retired during the pandemic caused a backlog in the classrooms and simulators.
“Flights were cancelled last year because of a lack of passengers. Now it’s because of a lack of pilots,” says Tajer. As American said, it is dealing with a “labor shortage.” The Tajer says he wishes the airline had not “given up the schedule” and worked with the pilots group. “This is the result of not being prepared to do the unprecedented,” he says.
Other airlines have not been as hard hit. Delta did announce it is hoping to hire 1,000 pilots, but says that is part of long-term replacement. The airline has not been forced to cancel as many flight as its competitor. Delta Spokesman Anthony Black told me, “We’ve built a flying schedule that supports our current staffing levels and do not anticipate operational issues.”
United Airlines head of operations, Jon Roitman, sent a letter to employees saying it is not facing problems like those at American Airlines. “The truth is that our situation is different primarily because we have been planning for this moment for more than a year,” he wrote.
TSA is a bit short handed. The Federal Agency wanted to hire 6,000 officers. It’s only been able to hire 4,000 so far. This labor shortage could partly be caused by another effort by the government. TSA’s Gregory tells me, “Unemployment benefits in some areas are almost as much as we pay.” TSA points out it is not seeing many lines longer than the 15 minutes. That under 15 minute mark is the agency's goal.
So, we’ve seen a leisure travelers rush to airports in numbers larger than many expected. The weather hasn’t helped. With summer here, American Airlines hopes the bitter medicine of cancellations pays off with the busy travel months ahead. Wait until the business travelers return.