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How Air Travel in the United States Became a Nightmare

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It was a rare moment of candor for the airline industry on Wednesday when United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told analysts and reporters that after a year of constant disruptions, including canceled and delayed flights, lost luggage and worse, passengers could expect more of that in 2023.

“The system simply cannot handle the current volume, much less the anticipated growth,” said Kirby. “There are several airlines that cannot fly on their schedules. Customers are paying the price.”

2022 was one of the most stressful years for consumer air travelers in recent memory. A surge in demand for travel after airlines slashed resources during the pandemic has caught operators by surprise. Unable to provide adequate flights, they continued to sell record numbers of tickets, resulting in more than one in five flights being delayed, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics – the highest rate of delays since 2014.

On Memorial Day last year, airfares skyrocketed and flight cancellations began to increase. The situation worsened over the summer, when bouts of bad weather left passengers stranded and forced Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg to call a meeting with airline CEOs.

While the fall was largely interruption-free, the year ended with a winter storm that brought air travel to a standstill, especially on Southwest Airlines.

“The days when flying was fun are long gone,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, antitrust group. “People will settle for the non-event.”

Not everyone agrees on the nature of the problem. According to Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor of the travel website The Points Guy, on any given day, the current system is almost always fine.

“It’s only in those few cases where things go wrong that go terribly wrong, and that causes serious problems for such a large number of people,” he said. “And it sucks if you’re one of those passengers — but the next week, everyone moves on and the system works.”

Still, many agree on the short- and long-term challenges that plague the industry. Airlines will soon be crippled by a lack of adequate staff, something United’s Kirby alluded to. On a more distant horizon are market modernization and reform efforts that analysts fear could be blocked by political hurdles.

Those questions are likely to persist as long as Washington’s stalemate prevails, analysts say.

labor shortage

As the pandemic raged, air travel was among the hardest hit industries, as more than 90% of flights were grounded. Bloomberg News calculated that around 400,000 global airline industry workers would lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

Today, there are labor shortages across the economy, but the problem lingers in the air travel industry, where more extensive employee training is often needed.

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

First among the labor issues in the airline industry is the shortage of pilots. By one estimate, another 12,000 pilots are needed. Even before the pandemic, pilots were retiring in droves as baby boomers hit the federally mandated age limit of 65.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines simply won’t be able to realize their capacity plans because there just aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five years or so,” said United’s Kirby. , on a quarterly earnings call last April.

But pilots’ unions resisted calls for reform. Some worry that the proposed changes could compromise security. Others worry that with younger and less experienced riders among their ranks, some collective bargaining leverage is lost.

On its website, the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilot union, calls the shortage a “myth” and accuses airline executives of trying to maximize profit – in part by refusing to cut their flight schedules. .

But even ALPA acknowledges that more steps could be taken to “maintain a robust pipeline of pilots”, such as helping students pay for flight training and subsidizing loans to cover it. Having more pilots available to work with would ease the burden on the system.

Other interested parties seem to be on the same page.

The Airlines for America trade group, which counts American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and others as members, told NBC News its carriers “have been working diligently to address the operational challenges within our control, hiring additional staff and adjusting our schedules to improve reliability”..”

Senator Lindsey Graham introduced legislation to raise the pilot’s retirement age from 65 to 67. The bill is backed by the Regional Airlines Association, which says that since 2019, 71% of airports have reduced flights and nine airports have lost service completely as a result of the age limit.

“Under this legislation, approximately 5,000 pilots would have the opportunity to continue flying over the next two years and, in turn, help keep communities connected to the air transportation system,” said senior director of the association Drew Remos, according to CNBC. .

The world's largest fleet of aircraft was grounded for hours due to a cascading disruption to a government system that delayed or canceled thousands of flights across the United States on Wednesday.
Travelers check in at an automated counter at Logan International Airport on January 11, 2023 in Boston.Steven Senne / AP

Outdated technology and infrastructure

There is near universal agreement that the infrastructure underpinning segments of the US air travel system is outdated and vulnerable. This was on full display earlier in the year when a technology issue at the Federal Aviation Administration caused all planes to be grounded. The agency said it was continuing to investigate, but Washington lawmakers said the failure proved more drastic changes were needed.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Montana, said the incident highlighted “an enormous vulnerability in our air transportation system.”

“Just as Southwest’s widespread outage just a few weeks ago was inexcusable, so too is DOT and FAA’s failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system,” he said.

The Southwest incident has also been attributed in part to Southwest’s old scheduling system, which requires crew members to call a central hotline to be rerouted when an outage occurs.

The FAA has been working to implement what is known as the NextGen system to modernize the country’s air traffic control system, a part of which still uses slips of paper to coordinate flight schedules. Reuters recently referred to this aspect as “much ridiculed”.

“There’s a lot of work needed to reduce the backlog of maintenance work, upgrades and replacement of buildings and equipment needed to safely operate our nation’s airspace,” FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims said in April.

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

“I put it down to the fact that we’re not giving them the resources, the funding, the staff, the tools, the technology that they need to modernize the tech system,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” recently.

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

But Paul Hudson, president of consumer advocacy group FlyersRights, said the Department of Transportation already gets enough funding — and the money is being wasted.

“I would like to see an audit of where the money is,” Hudson told NBC News. “DOT has gotten a huge increase and it’s not being spent or it’s being spent on things other than what’s causing cancellations.”

But even this problem comes back to the staff. The FAA said that in 2020 it was more difficult “to hire technical talent 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 that other countries have taken, including Canada, whose NAV Canada system has been a private, not-for-profit company since 1996.

“It’s the gold standard of air traffic systems in the world,” said Scott Lincicome, director of general economics at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It’s efficient, it’s innovative, and it’s a government-regulated private not-for-profit company,” Lincicome said, adding, “It’s a great example of what the US system could be if only we could overcome our difficulties.”

Image: Chicago airport commuters
Travelers line up for flights at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on December 30, 2021.Nam Y. Huh / AP See More

traffic jam

But Lincicome said there is entrenched resistance to that solution — and to many other practical solutions put forward by consumer advocates of all political stripes.

“There doesn’t seem to be any appetite in Washington for this reform, regardless of the documented problems,” Lincicome said. “Sounds like a tough nut to crack.”

Meanwhile, US passengers will remain at the mercy of their individual airlines. Passengers on US airlines already enjoy fewer rights than passengers in Europe, according to Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, a European consumer rights group. While European passengers are entitled to up to €600 when there is a flight interruption of more than three hours that is not outside the airline’s control, travelers on US flights are only entitled to a refund – and even that can be hard to get.

“It’s difficult to claim compensation from airlines,” Napoli said of US airline passengers. “They don’t have great protections.”

Mayerowitz of The Points Guy said operators would likely pass the costs of tighter regulation on to customers.

“Americans are used to $39 flights to Florida,” Mayerowitz said. “Travelers probably don’t want to pay $20 or $30 more for each ticket to have these delay protections that they may or may not reap the benefits of” if the flight arrives on time.

Airfares have been in more or less steady decline since the mid-1990s, when adjusted for inflation. Compared to a ticket that averaged $558 in 1995, a plane ticket in 2022 averaged $373, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

McGee of the American Economic Liberties Project hopes that flying in the US will become so difficult that lawmakers can finally take more comprehensive action.

“It’s reaching a breaking point, and this is not a one-party issue,” McGee said. “There is a general sense in the country; most Americans realize that something is really wrong with this industry.”

But Mayerowitz said that until those actions are taken, passengers should be realistic about what to expect when they go to heaven.

“Passengers should never lower their expectations, but should always prepare for the worst,” said Mayerowitz. “We need to hold airlines and politicians accountable. Air travel should be predictable and consistent, and you shouldn’t wonder if air traffic control is going to work today as you head to the airport.

“That said, every traveler should always have a backup plan and a backup for their backup. And that’s especially true while on vacation.”