Opinion | Air travel is in chaos – and there are no easy solutions

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If you’ve traveled a lot by air in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered difficulties: flight delays and cancellations, misplaced luggage, massive lines for check-in and security. Commercial air travel is in a mess—and, unfortunately, there’s no quick fix in sight.

In the past two months, 2.2 percent of flights by US carriers have been canceled and 22 percent — or 260,000 flights — have been delayed, according to flight tracking company Flight Aware. 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 will limit the number of departing passengers to 100,000 a day.

Much of the problem stems from an industry-wide labor shortage. After the aviation industry was decimated in 2020 by Covid-19, US airlines received $54 billion in pandemic relief. Overestimating how long it would take for commuting to increase, they offered retirement packages to older workers and put many workers on temporary leave. Now they are struggling to train and certify new pilots fast enough. Federal data suggests airlines were the biggest cause of flight delays in the United States from January to May and are responsible for a significant number of cancellations.

However, airlines are not solely responsible. Most organizations working in air travel were forced to cut staff or stop hiring in 2020. This has led to shortages in airport staff, baggage handlers, security and more. Employers are scrambling to hire and train workers quickly, but many airport positions require security clearance. The air traffic control system has also seen staffing challenges in certain high-volume areas, caused in part by Covid-19 outbreaks and a halt to training before vaccines were available. Because air travel is deeply interconnected, problems at one airport can lead to delays and cancellations downstream, overwhelming the system.

Some lawmakers have called for the Transportation Department to use its consumer protection powers to crack down on air carriers. In fact, the department has opened 20 investigations into airlines for failing to return refunds efficiently. Authorities must enforce the rules if any of them are broken, but investigations take time and may not always yield the desired results.

At a meeting in June, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed airline executives to make sure summer flight schedules are operational. Airlines, to their credit, have cut their schedules by 16 percent since the spring, and flight cancellations are down since mid-June. However, this does not address long-term capacity issues.

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

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

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