a screen with a schedule

The Mad, Mad Summer of 2022

The article below is contributed by Patrick Smith - AskThePilot.com

If you've been to the airport lately, you’ve experienced the mayhem. Terminals are swamped, planes are overbooked, cancellations are rampant, delays are out of control.

I’ve been working quite a bit over the last few months, so I’ve been in the thick of it.

“Travel is back,” I wrote in a post back in May. “I wasn’t sure we’d get here, so count me among those who are happy to see a little chaos again at the airport.” I meant what I said, but things have rapidly reached a breaking point. How bad is it, exactly? It’s tough to quantify in terms of statistics, but suffice it to say that in 30 years of commercial flying, I’ve never seen anything like this.

The gist of the problem is staffing. The media keeps talking about a pilot shortage, and certainly, that’s a factor, but the crisis extends across the entire industry: at the airlines and their various contractors, at air traffic control, security, airport retail, and so on.

Yes, it mostly goes back to how things were handled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when thousands of employees were shed, and a failure to adequately re-staff as things swung back to normal. On the surface, the airlines and their partners look pretty stupid, but perhaps it’s not that simple. Remember the environment at the height of the COVID-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like it, and was desperate to stay alive.

There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. Travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week, and absolutely nothing was certain. Almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return over a period of years.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others. And that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

And so here we are. And it’s not just the United States. Security and check-in lines at some European airports are three or more hours long. I was flying out of Dublin the other day, and the lines for U.S. immigration preclearance snaked all the way to the second floor. Amsterdam-Schiphol has enacted flight restrictions, and a luggage system meltdown at London-Heathrow left passengers without their bags for several days.

Pilot Shortages

As to that pilot shortage we keep hearing about, there are, in fact, two shortages, the effects of which are overlapping. One is short-term and pandemic-related, per above. The second is more systemic and longer-term.

Carriers are now taking on hundreds of new-hire pilots every month. This, combined with the lingering effects of the pandemic reshuffling, finds training departments overwhelmed, with long backlogs for classroom time, simulator slots, line certification flights, etc. Pilot training is modular, and it does not happen quickly. New-hire training can take several weeks, as can moving from one aircraft type to another, or upgrading from first officer to captain. Many pilots are sitting at home, waiting their turn. Thus, it’s less a dearth of pilots than a training system overload.

Then we have the other, more systemic shortage. As I talked about in this older article, this is a significantly bigger problem at the regional carrier level than at the majors. All of the legacy airlines are currently hiring, and although they’re having no trouble filling their slots, those pilots have to come from somewhere. This is causing a ripple effect downward through the industry. The regional sector has all but reinvented itself in a plea for new hires, offering salary and benefits packages heretofore unheard of for entry-level airline pilots.

For decades, the salaries and working conditions at regional carriers were laughably substandard. In many cases pilots were asked to foot their own training costs, only to earn poverty level wages in return. And as the regional sector expanded, taking over more and more mainline flying, a job at a regional often meant an entire career at a regional. This led to fewer and fewer pilots getting into the business, helping create the shortage we have today. These companies now have little choice but to significantly improve pay scales and benefits, both to entice new-hire pilots and to retain the ones they already have. You could say they had it coming; there never needed to be a shortage in the first place.

Overall passenger numbers are still off about 15 percent from 2019. The problem is, the 85 percent who are back are being crammed into an infrastructure that can’t handle them.

Airspace and Runway Saturation

What nobody is talking about, meanwhile, is the issue of airspace and runway saturation. It was bad enough pre-pandemic. Now, several upstart carriers are pumping even more airplanes into a system at or beyond maximum capacity. It’s especially bad in the eastern half of the U.S. Things run fairly smoothly when the weather is good, but the minute a storm develops, blocking off air routes, the delays and cancellations start to cascade.

Even on clear-weather days, the taxiway queues at airports like Newark or La Guardia can be hours long. Airlines need to better rationalize their schedules and, in many markets, consolidate departures to help reduce congestion. To this end, the short-haul widebody jet is a concept whose time has maybe returned.

When will the Madness End?

When will the madness end? Will it end? I keep my fingers crossed that we’re not being set up for a sort of new normal in which chaos is taken for granted. I worry, because as we’ve seen with airport security over the past two decades, the traveling public has a remarkable and discouraging ability to adapt to almost anything, no matter how absurd or inconvenient.

Let’s hope, instead, the crisis is temporary. In the meantime, if you bring one thing to the airport this summer, have it be this: patience.

The article below is contributed by Patrick Smith - AskThePilot.com