How US air travel became a nightmare

A rare moment of candor for the airline industry came on Wednesday, when United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby He told analysts and reporters After a year of constant disruptions, including canceled and delayed flights, lost baggage and worse, travelers can expect more of that in 2023.

“The system simply can’t handle the volume today, let alone the projected growth,” Kirby said. There are a number of airlines that cannot fly their schedules. Customers pay the price.”

2022 was one of the most stressful years for consumer air travelers in recent memory. Travel demand soared after airlines cut resources during the pandemic, causing airlines to ground to a halt. Unable to provide enough flights, they nonetheless continued to sell record numbers of tickets, resulting in More than one in five flights are delayedaccording to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics — the highest rate of delays since 2014.

By Memorial Day last yearAirfare prices have skyrocketed, and flight cancellations are starting to rise. The situation worsened over the summer, with seizures Turbulent weather left passengers stranded He forced Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to hold a meeting with the airline’s chief executives.

While the fall was turbulent-free, the year ended with a winter storm that grounded flights. Especially on Southwest Airlines.

“The fun days of flying are over,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Freedoms Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, antitrust group. “People will be satisfied with non-events.”

Not everyone agrees on the nature of the problem. According to Scott Meyerowitz, executive editor of travel site The Points Guy, on any given day, the current system is mostly fine.

“These are just the few cases where things go wrong, go horribly wrong, and cause serious problems for such a large number of people,” he said. “It’s awful to be one of those commuters – but next week, everyone’s moving and the system is working.”

However, many agree on the short- and long-term challenges that plague the industry. Airlines would soon falter due to a lack of adequate personnel, something Kirby hinted at. On the far horizon, there are modernization and market reform efforts that analysts fear will be hampered by political hurdles.

Analysts say these issues are likely to remain as long as the stalemate in Washington persists.

labor shortage

As the pandemic spreads, air travel has been among the hardest hit industries, with more than 90% of flights grounded. Bloomberg News calculated About 400,000 workers in the global aviation industry were on the verge of losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

Today, there is a labor shortage throughout the economy, but the problem persists in the air travel sector, where extensive staff training is required.

“The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Where did they all go?'” Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, said at an event this summer. ” As reported by The Wall Street Journal. “There are hundreds of millions of people who have disappeared from the labor market.”

First and foremost, among the employment issues in the aviation industry is the shortage of pilots. By one estimate, about 12,000 more pilots are needed. Even before the pandemic, pilots were retiring in droves as baby boomers reached the federal mandatory pilot age minimum of 65.

“The pilot shortage in the industry is real, and most airlines simply won’t be able to meet their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five years or more,” said Kirby of United. quarterly earnings call this past April.

But experimental unions have resisted calls for reform. Some fear that the proposed changes could jeopardize safety. Others worry that with younger, less experienced pilots among their ranks, you will lose some collective bargaining leverage.

on its websiteThe Airline Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilot union, has called the shortage a “myth” and accuses airline executives of trying to maximize profits — in part by refusing to shrink their flight schedules.

But even ALPA acknowledges that more action can be taken “Maintaining a strong experimental pipeline,” Such as helping students pay for flight training and subsidizing loans to cover them. Having more pilots available for action would ease the load on the system.

Other stakeholders seem to be on the same page.

The Air America commercial group, which counts American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and others as members, told NBC News, “Their carriers are working hard to address the operational challenges that are within our control by hiring additional staff and adjusting our schedules to improve performance.” reliability.. ”

Senator Lindsey Graham Introduce the legislation Raising the retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67. The bill has been supported by a regional airline association, which says that since 2019, 71% of airports have reduced flights, and nine have lost service entirely as a result of the age limit.

“Under this legislation, approximately 5,000 pilots will have the opportunity to continue flying over the next two years, thereby helping to keep communities connected to the air transportation system,” said union senior director Drew Remus, according to CNBC.

The world's largest aircraft fleet was delayed for hours by another government system's cascading outage or canceled thousands of flights across the United States on Wednesday.  (Stephen Sinney/AP)

The world’s largest aircraft fleet was delayed for hours by another government system’s cascading outage or canceled thousands of flights across the United States on Wednesday. (Stephen Sinney/AP)

Outdated technology and infrastructure

There is near-universal agreement that the infrastructure that underpins parts of the US air travel system is outdated and weak. That was on full display at the start of the year when a technical problem with the Federal Aviation Administration caused all planes to be grounded. The agency said it continued to investigate, but lawmakers in Washington said the flaw proved more drastic changes were needed.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Montana, said the crash highlighted “a significant weakness in our air transportation system.”

“Just as the widespread disturbance in Southwest a few weeks ago was unjustified, so is the failure of the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system,” he said.

The Southwest Incident was like that Partly to blame On Southwest’s aging scheduling system, which requires crew members to call a central hotline to be rerouted when a disturbance occurs.

The FAA is working on what’s known as the NextGen system to modernize the country’s air traffic control system, part of which still uses paper tapes to coordinate flight schedules. Reuters recently referred to this aspect as Long scoffed.

“There is a significant amount of work required to reduce the backlog of sustainment work, and the upgrades and replacements of buildings and equipment needed to safely operate our nation’s airspace,” FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims said last April.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said additional federal funding is needed to speed modernization.

“I put this on the fact that we’re not giving them the resources, the funding, the staffing, the tools, the technology they need to modernize the tech ecosystem,” He told CNBC’s Squawk Box recently.

“We hope that this is the call to our political leaders in Washington that we need to do a better job,” Bastian added.

But Paul Hudson, President Copyrights The consumer advocacy group, said the Department of Transportation is already getting too much funding – and that the money is being spent wrongly.

“I’d like to see an audit of where the money is,” Hudson told NBC News. “The DOT has gotten a huge raise, and it’s either not being spent, or it’s being spent on things other than reasons for revocation.”

But even this issue goes back to employment. FAA He said in 2020 that it was more difficult “To employ technical talents more quickly and effectively than in the past.”

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called for an alternative solution: privatizing the air traffic control system. It’s a step taken by other countries, including Canada, whose NAV Canada system has been a privately run non-profit corporation since 1996.

“It’s the gold standard for the world’s air traffic systems,” said Scott Linkicum, director of public economics at the Cato Institute, a liberal think tank. “It’s an efficient, innovative company and it’s a private, government-regulated nonprofit,” Linkicom said, adding, “It’s a great example of what the American system can be if we can overcome the difficulties we face.”

Photo: Chicago Airport Line passengers (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Photo: Chicago Airport Line passengers (Nam Y. Huh/AP)


But Linkycom said there is ingrained resistance to this solution — and to many other practical solutions put forward by consumer advocates across the political spectrum.

“There doesn’t seem to be any desire in Washington for this reform, regardless of the documented problems,” Linkekum said. “It seems very difficult to break.”

Meanwhile, travelers in the US will continue to be at the mercy of their airlines. Already, US airline passengers have fewer rights than those in Europe, according to Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at the Airline AirHelp, a consumer advocacy group based in Europe. While European travelers are entitled to up to €600 when there is a flight disruption of more than three hours that is not outside the airline’s control, passengers on US flights are only entitled to a refund – and even that can be hard to come by.

“It’s hard to claim compensation from airlines. They don’t have much protection,” Napoli said of airline passengers in the United States.

Mayerowitz said, with The Points Guy, that carriers will likely pass on stronger regulation costs to customers.

“Americans are used to $39 flights to Florida,” Meyerowitz said. “Travelers probably don’t want to pay an extra $20 or $30 per ticket in order to get the delay protection they may or may not earn” if their flight ends up on time.

Aircraft prices have been declining fairly steadily since the mid-1990s, when adjusted for inflation. Compared to a ticket that cost an average of $558 in 1995, airfare in 2022 will cost an average of $373, According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

McGee hopes that, with the American Economic Freedoms Project, flying in the US will become so difficult that lawmakers may finally take more comprehensive action.

“It’s nearing a breaking point, and this isn’t a one-party issue,” McGee said. “There is a general feeling in the country; most Americans understand that there is something really wrong with this industry.”

But until those measures are in place, Meyerowitz said, passengers need to be realistic about what to expect when they take to the skies.

“Passengers should never lower their expectations, but they should always prepare for the worst,” Meyerowitz said. “We need to hold airlines and politicians to account. Air travel needs to be predictable and consistent, and you don’t have to wonder if air traffic control will work today as you head to the airport.

“However, every traveler should always have a backup plan, and a backup for their backup. This is especially true on holidays.”

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