THE PERFECT STORM: WHEN TRAVEL RECOVERY MEETS AIRLINES’ INEFFICIENCIES
Jul 06, 2022 / By Sam Burritt
It seems like forever since entire fleets were first grounded due to the pandemic. Airlines had a “historic moment” to blame as we all navigated the joys of flight cancellations imposed by aviation and health authorities and governments. Three years later, the story is quite different due to a staffing shortage and a stronger than expected booking curve, although the results, unfortunately for passengers, feel the same.
Different challenges are at the root cause of the problem, yet airlines have again found a way to frame the situation and shift the blame. Unable to meet the rising demand in bookings during this summer season, they blame the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for delays, while the FAA is saying airlines are flying schedules they can’t support. Pilots, on the other hand, are pointing fingers at airlines for increased workloads they state could result in safety issues. Yes, it’s the perfect storm.
The inability to support flying schedules is an interesting claim because it goes well beyond the pilot shortage debate, which is also an underlying issue today—the flight attendants, ground handlers, and baggage loaders are also scarce at airports, with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reporting that airlines have lost or mishandled 21% more bags than last year.
Who pays the price? No, it’s not a trick question. Passengers do, with airlines like Delta “going above and beyond” by granting customers a waiver ahead of July Fourth travel to change flights, asking them basically not to fly. This is an unprecedented move that, for me, truly, is an admission that failure was on the horizon.
The travel chaos is not only reserved for U.S. travelers, as the crosswinds have also hit Europe. Passengers at Heathrow, one of the continent’s busiest airports, are constantly reporting long lines, cancellations, and a lack of customer service. The case is similar in Amsterdam and Berlin, while Asia continues to navigate its umpteenth Covid-19 wave.
Departing passengers queueing at Terminal 2 at Heathrow airport the week of June 30, 2022. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
THE BLAME GAME
Is there a solution? Senator Bernie Sanders thinks that the DOT should start fining airlines for disrupted flights, while the DOT is considering imposing financial consequences on airlines publishing unrealistic flight schedules, as reported by CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg. Rules might force airlines to show they can operate flights with the proper staff before being allowed to schedule them. That might be a mid-term solution.
At this point, it is an understatement to say that airlines and airports were not prepared to withstand the travel recovery. The blame game needs to stop, and passengers, the main stakeholder in these discussions, must be prioritized. The days when airlines offer a passenger 10,000 dollars to get off an oversold flight need to end; that’s not a sustainable practice for the industry and demonstrates a lack of operational capability that only transfers uncertainty to travelers.
"The days when airlines offer a passenger 10,000 dollars to get off an oversold flight need to end; that’s not a sustainable practice for the industry and demonstrates a lack of operational capability that only transfers uncertainty to travelers."
At this pace, travelers might find it more convenient to drive to closer destinations by car, even if the ride lasts up to 5 hours and the gas prices are still staggering. That sounds much better than waiting hours in check-in lines and potentially having the flight canceled.
The travel recovery has been in place for months now, with airlines having witnessed the increase in demand and the openness of travelers to explore the world again as early as mid-2020. Yet, a reactive stance by air travel providers has clouded the summer for thousands of families.
While it might be too late to get their act together before the end of summer 2022, the industry will need to find ways to tighten up its operations before Thanksgiving; eliminating the blaming game while searching for common ground and attainable solutions should be a priority between both private and public sectors.
What is the 2023 outlook? According to a recent IATA forecast, travel recovery hints at profitability for next year, with industry losses expected to be reduced by almost $10 billion, while industry-wide profitability in North America is already scheduled to deliver an $8.8 billion profit in 2022. That’s great, but at what cost? Apparently, for now, at the passenger’s expense.
Airlines had a golden opportunity to “reset” their operations and inefficiencies that were ever-present before Covid-19 and yet here we are again. If a pandemic can’t force airlines to get their act together, what on earth will?
DO YOU HAVE ANY COMMENTS OR THOUGHTS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? YOU CAN REACH ME AT SBURRITT@THINKINK.COM
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