The days of ‘fun flying’ are long gone: How US air travel became a nightmare

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The days of ‘fun flying’ are long gone: How US air travel became a nightmare


It was a rare moment of candor for the airline industry, United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said Wednesday. told analysts and reporters After a year of constant disruption, with flights canceled, delayed, and lost luggage, more could be expected in 2023.

“The system can’t handle today’s volume, much less the expected growth,” Kirby says. “There are a lot of airlines that can’t fly on schedule. Customers are paying the price.”

2022 has been the most stressful year for consumer air travelers in recent memory. Airlines have been stranded as travel demand surged after they cut resources during the pandemic. Although we were unable to adequately staff our flights, we continued to sell record-breaking numbers of tickets, resulting in 1 in 5 flights delayedthe highest delay rate since 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

By Memorial Day last year, air fares soared and flight cancellations began to rise. The situation deteriorated over the summer, Passengers stranded due to bad weather He forced Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to call a meeting with airline CEOs.

The fall was largely undisturbed, but the year ended with a winter storm that brought airline travel to a halt. especially Southwest Airlines..

“The days when flying is fun are long gone,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, anti-monopoly organization. said. “People will settle down in peace.”

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

“There are only a few instances where things go wrong, and they go horribly wrong, and cause serious problems for so many people,” he said. It’s scary, but next week everyone will move and the system will work.”

Still, many agree on the short-term and long-term challenges plaguing the industry. As United Airlines’ Kirby hinted, the airline will soon be held back by a shortage of proper staff. The modernization and market reform efforts feared by analysts could be hampered by political roadblocks.

Analysts say these problems are likely to linger as long as Washington’s deadlock continues.

labor shortage

Air travel is one of the most affected industries, as more than 90% of flights have been grounded as the pandemic rages on.bloomberg news calculated About 400,000 workers in the global aviation industry have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

While labor shortages exist across the economy today, the air travel sector is a lingering problem and typically requires more extensive employee training.

Emirates Airlines President Tim Clark said at an event this summer, According to the Wall Street Journal report“Hundreds of millions of people have disappeared from the labor market.”

The number one labor problem in the aviation industry is the shortage of pilots. One estimate calls for about 12,000 more pilots. Even before the pandemic, pilots were retiring in droves as baby boomers reached his 65, the federal mandatory pilot age limit.

“The pilot shortage in the industry is real, and most airlines won’t be able to deliver on their capacity plans because they won’t have enough pilots for at least the next five years or more,” United’s Kirby said last April. quarterly earnings report.

However, pilot unions have resisted calls for reform. Some worry that the proposed changes could jeopardize safety. Some people

on the websitethe Airline Pilots Association, the country’s largest pilots’ union, has called the shortage a “myth” and accused airline executives of trying to maximize profits.

But even ALPA admits more could be done “Maintain a Robust Pilot Pipeline” Students pay for flight training, or subsidize loans to cover it. The more pilots available to work, the less strain on the system.

Other stakeholders seem to be on the same page as well.

Airlines for America, a trade group whose members include American Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest, told NBC News that airlines are “hiring additional staff and adjusting schedules to improve reliability. , we are serious about the operational challenges under our control.”.”

Senator Lindsey Graham Laws introduced Raise the retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67. The bill is backed by the Regional Aviation Association, which has seen flights cut at 71% of his airports since 2019, and he says nine airports have seen a complete loss of service as a result of age restrictions. .

“Approximately 5,000 pilots will be given the opportunity to continue flying over the next two years under this law, helping communities stay connected to the air transportation system,” according to CNBC. said Drew Remos, senior director of the association.

The world's largest aircraft fleet was unable to land for hours on Wednesday due to a cascading shutdown in government systems that delayed or canceled thousands of flights across the United States.
Travelers check in at automated counters at Boston’s Logan International Airport on January 11, 2023.Stephen Sen/AP

Outdated technology and infrastructure

There is almost universal agreement that the infrastructure that underpins segments of the American air travel system is outdated and vulnerable. It was fully manifested earlier in the year when all planes were grounded due to technical problems with the Federal Aviation Administration. Officials said they were continuing to investigate, but the Washington lawmaker said the glitch proved more drastic changes were needed.

Republican Montana Rep. Sam Graves said the incident highlighted a “great vulnerability in the air transportation system.”

“Like the massive disruption to Southwest Airlines just a few weeks ago, the failure of the DOT and FAA to properly maintain and operate their air traffic control system is unacceptable,” he said. I was.

southwest incident partially blamed Southwest’s aging scheduling system requires crew members to call a central hotline to reroute in the event of a disruption.

The FAA has worked to implement what is known as the NextGen system to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system. Some of them still use slips of paper to coordinate flight schedules.Reuters recently covered that aspect “Long ridiculed.”

“Much work is needed to reduce the backlog of maintenance work, upgrades, building and equipment replacements required to safely operate our airspace,” said FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims. said last April.

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

“This is based on the fact that we are not providing them with the resources, funding, staffing, tools and technology needed to modernize their technical systems.” He recently told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“Hopefully, this will serve as a call to political leaders in Washington that we need to do better,” Bastian added.

However, President Paul Hudson Flyer rights According to consumer advocacy groups, the Department of Transportation is already well-funded, and that money is being wasted.

“I want to do an audit of where the money is,” Hudson told NBC News. “DOTs have increased significantly and are either not being used or are being used for anything other than what is causing cancellations.”

But even this issue goes back to staffing. FAA 2020 was harder “Recruit technical talent faster and more effectively than ever before.”

Legislators in various political circles have called for another solution: privatizing the air traffic control system. This is a step taken by other countries, including Canada, where the NAV Canada system has been operating as a non-profit corporation since 1996.

“This is the gold standard for the world’s air traffic system,” said Scott Linthicum, director of general economics at the Cait Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It’s an efficient, innovative, government-regulated, non-profit private enterprise,” Linthicum said, adding, “If we can get past the hard times, we’ll show what the American system could look like. It’s a good example,” he added.

Image: Chicago airport line travelers
Travelers queue for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on December 30, 2021.Nam Y. Huh/AP

grid lock

But Linthicum said there was persistent resistance to that solution — and many other pragmatic solutions put forward by consumer advocates of all political stripes.

“Despite the documented problems, Washington seems unenthusiastic about its reforms,” ​​Linthicum said. “It’s like a nut that’s very hard to crack.”

Meanwhile, US flyers will continue to be at the mercy of individual airlines. US airline passengers already enjoy fewer rights than their European counterparts, according to Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy. AirHelp, a European-based consumer advocacy group. European passengers are entitled to up to €600 in the event of a flight disruption of more than 3 hours not outside the airline’s control, whereas travelers on US flights are simply entitled to a refund and can be difficult to obtain.

“It’s hard to claim compensation from airlines,” Napoli said of US air passengers, “they don’t get enough protection.”

The Points Guy’s Mayerowitz says carriers are likely to pass on the costs of increased regulation to their customers.

“Americans are used to $39 flights to Florida,” says Mayerowitz. “A traveler must pay an extra $20 or $30 per ticket to obtain these delay protections, whether they benefit or not, if the flight arrives on time. would not want.”

Inflation-adjusted airfares have almost certainly fallen since the mid-1990s. Airfare averaged $373 in 2022, compared to an average $558 ticket in 1995. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Maggie of the American Economic Liberties Project hopes that flying in the United States will become so difficult that lawmakers will eventually take more inclusive action.

“It’s approaching a breaking point and this is not a one-party issue,” McGee said. I am aware of that.”

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

“Passengers should never lower their expectations and always prepare for the worst,” said Mayerowitz. “We need to hold airlines and politicians accountable. Air travel should be predictable and consistent, and we question whether air traffic control works today when heading to airports. No need to think.

“That said, every traveler should always have a back-up plan and a backup for backups, especially when on vacation.”

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