Airline worker unions say the summer vacation season could be three months of continual flight delays and cancellations as travel demand pushes crowds to levels not seen since 2019.
Flight attendants and pilots at American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines have launched stinging criticism at their bosses for not fixing what they say are operational problems that started last summer and persisted through winter and spring.
Despite hiring efforts, labor shortages have left airlines short of critical employees needed to staff flights that have already been scheduled for the summer season.
“It’s going to be an absolute circus,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University in New York. “I think they will be in nothing but an absolute wall-to-wall jam.”
Last week, pilots for American Airlines sued the company over changes in training procedures stemming from a lack of instructors and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association blasted their company for causing pilot fatigue that endangers safety.
During peak periods, airlines have offered bonus pay to discourage workers from taking days off. JetBlue recently offered $1,000 bonuses to flight attendants for working full schedules during the spring travel period.
Workers say they are exhausted after an entire year of pulling together to make sure airlines operate with short staffing.
However, despite a year of difficulties with cancellations, Bank of America analysts Andrew Didora and Jon Hacunda say airlines have gotten better at fixing problems when they occur and future problems shouldn’t be as costly financially as they have been in the past.
“While difficult from a headline perspective, the airlines seem to have learned from past operational issues with most cancellations subsiding after three days,” Didora and Hacunda said in an investor note. “As such, the cost impact is likely less than that seen during summer/fall of 2021 and around omicron.”
New CEOs at Southwest and American Airlines have both said they are focused on running a more reliable airline as they ramp up out of the pandemic.
“We, along with the industry, continue our progress toward returning our operation back to pre-pandemic service and staffing levels, which will foster improvements in our ability to handle unexpected operational disruptions, minimizing the impact on employees and customers,” said Southwest Airlines spokesman Chris Mainz.
American, Southwest and Spirit airlines are also in the middle of tense negotiations with unions for new contracts. While airline workers can’t go on strike without federal approval, breakdowns in contract negotiations have resulted in air carrier slowdowns in the past as disgruntled workers stopped picking up extra shifts.
All this comes as airlines face their biggest test in passenger volumes in more than three years. The increase in demand is a result of health restrictions dropping, higher vaccination and booster rates and pent-up demand from travelers who have been holding off flying since the beginning of 2020.
“We have more people buying tickets — 15% higher — even though we have less inventory, even though we don’t have international travel, even though we have less business travel,” said American Airlines chairman Doug Parker in a conference call with investors on March 15. “That just says, if nothing else, demand for travel is really strong.”
Airlines are crafting plans to meet that demand, making union workers nervous.
The four major U.S. airlines are planning summer schedules that are 4% to 20% larger than a year ago. According to flight schedule tracker Diio by Cirium, Fort Worth-based American is planning to be the biggest carrier in the country between June and August with more than 550,000 flights. That’s one-sixth more than the next largest carrier, Delta.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is planning the biggest ramp up from 2021 with 20% more flights this summer.
In many ways, airlines have improved on-time performance rates from previous years, according to Department of Transportation statistics. American Airlines has turned in stretches of on-time flights and low cancellations that made it appear the airline had overcome pre-pandemic reliability problems.
But earlier this month, a string of airlines struggled after a thunderstorm rolled through central and southern Florida, causing hundreds of flight delays that eventually turned into thousands of cancellations for American, Southwest, Spirit and JetBlue.
At Southwest, these kinds of meltdowns have been happening since 2014, but understaffing problems and operational issues have become more frequent over the last year, said Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest’s 14,600 flight attendants.
“There is an extreme frustration that it keeps happening over and over again,” Montgomery said. “There is an understanding that it happens on occasion, but it is happening on a regular basis.”
Labor issues aren’t unique to airlines, Cornell’s Wheaton said, but traveling is a higher-stakes transaction than dining at a restaurant.
“People traveling already have hotels booked, tickets to Disneyland and rental cars,” Wheaton said. “Airlines are under tremendous pressure to get people to their destinations.”
The biggest disruptions have come during heavy travel periods. Southwest and a few other carriers were blindsided by a staffing shortage shortly after New Year’s Day that forced hundreds of flight cancellations. Another came over Columbus Day weekend, when many schools in the South were letting students out for a fall break.
The most recent happened during the first weekend of April amid spring break.
The common thread in every instance has been a busier-than-normal travel weekend, combined with minor weather challenges or technical problems that would normally cause only small disruptions for airlines. Instead, staffing shortages and tight schedules create a cascading failure where flights across the country are canceled because planes, pilots and flight attendants are out of place.
Those kinds of breakdowns have left flight attendants and pilots without hotel rooms and transportation, only heightening the problem because crew members need adequate rest to legally fly. Southwest Airlines pilots have reported a record number of fatigue calls over the last 12 months.
Last week, Spirit Airlines flight attendants protested at DFW International Airport, demanding changes to help alleviate what they say are problems with how the low-cost carrier operates.
“Right now, our biggest concern is the operation,” said Don Reno Intreglia, the Association of Flight Attendants vice president at Spirit Airlines. “We need to get this fixed before summer.”
Airline union leaders have been warning that operations may not hold up to heavy passenger loads over the summer stretch.
American Airlines has responded by bringing in four new flight simulators to train pilots and hiring 600 pilots this summer. American is also stressing that it had some of its best on-time rates in history during March, even with big spring break crowds.
“We have taken steps to ensure we are well-prepared to deliver for our customers during the busy summer travel season,” American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said.”Our summer preparations began last year as demand returned and we haven’t slowed down on hiring and onboarding. We have hired thousands of new team members across the operation, including pilots, flight attendants and airport team members.”
The carrier is also bringing in extra workers to take care of problems with scheduling hotel rooms and taxis during problem periods, Gilson said.
But Eric Ferguson, president of the Allied Pilots Association, contends American isn’t ready.
“Management was clearly ill-prepared for the rebound in airline traffic and has been selling tickets for flights the airline may be unable to operate due to a shortage of properly qualified pilots, despite management’s recent assurances to the contrary,” Ferguson said.
Some airlines, including Delta, have taken the opposite approach, with smaller flight schedules heading into this summer. Delta President Glen Hauenstein said Monday that “the priority is to operate reliably and the other priority is do not get ahead of demand.”
Still, the union for Delta pilots is also complaining about fatigue and scheduling problems, the same issues that American, Southwest and others have had.
“Delta management must address our concerns and make substantive changes to improve our schedules,” the union shared in a Tweet.