The Washington Post

The messy skies

Air travel is in disarray, but there are no easy solutions.


IF YOU’VE traveled much by air over the past few months, chances are you have encountere­d difficulti­es: flight delays and cancellati­ons, misplaced luggage, massive lines for checkin and security. Commercial air travel is in disarray — and, unfortunat­ely, there is no quick solution in sight.

According to the flight-tracking company Flightawar­e, in the past two months, 2.2 percent of flights by U.S. carriers have been canceled and 22 percent — or 260,000 flights — have been delayed. The pattern is by no means limited to the United States: 52.9 percent of flights departing from Toronto Pearson Internatio­nal Airport were delayed between June 1 and July 12; London’s Heathrow Airport, where 40 percent of flights were delayed, announced it would restrict the number of departing passengers to 100,000 daily.

Much of the problem stems from an industrywi­de labor shortage. After the aviation industry was decimated in 2020 by covid-19, U.S. airlines received $54 billion in pandemic aid. Overestima­ting how long it would take for travel to scale back up, they offered older employees retirement packages and gave many workers temporary leaves of absence. Now they are struggling to train and certify new pilots quickly enough. Federal data suggests that the airlines were the biggest reason for flight delays in the United States from January to May, and are responsibl­e for a significan­t number of cancellati­ons.

Airlines, however, do not bear sole responsibi­lity. Most organizati­ons working in air travel had to cut back on staffing or pause hiring in 2020. That has led to shortages in airport staff, baggage handlers, security and more. Employers are trying to rapidly hire and train workers, but many airport positions require security clearances. The air traffic control system has also experience­d staffing challenges in certain high-volume areas, caused in part by covid-19 outbreaks and a halt in training before vaccines were available. Because air travel is deeply interconne­cted, issues in one airport can lead to delays and cancellati­ons downstream, overwhelmi­ng the system.

Some lawmakers have called for the Transporta­tion Department to use its powers on consumer protection to crack down on air carriers. In fact, the department has opened 20 investigat­ions into airlines for failing to pay refunds efficientl­y. Authoritie­s should enforce rules if any have been violated, but investigat­ions take time and might not always produce the desired results.

In a June meeting, Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed airline executives to ensure summer flight schedules were operable. Airlines, to their credit, have cut their schedules by 16 percent since the spring, and flight cancellati­ons have decreased since midJune. Yet that does not address the longer-term questions of capacity.

Airlines, airports and authoritie­s must work together to fix the structural issues exposed by this summer’s disorder. The pilot shortage was a concern even before the pandemic. Carriers and the federal government should find ways to lower the barriers to entry to training programs and certificat­ion, which are time-consuming and costly. It’s also time to look closely at recruitmen­t and retention in airport and ground services, jobs that are often low-paying and laborinten­sive with unattracti­ve schedules.

The air travel industry, like much of our economy, was unprepared for the disruption from covid-19. By acting now, it could be more resilient in the face of future crises.

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