US airlines shouldn’t get into a squabble over a chaotic summer Travel

In recent weeks, many airlines in Europe and the US have let their customers down by selling routes they can’t fly. Airlines are operating on near-normal schedules despite far-off conditions, and passengers are facing flight cancellations and baggage delays.

You might think that airlines and their representatives will take responsibility for their mistakes. Or at least tell them that they are aware of the problems and are trying to fix them. Some succeeded, but many others played the blame game. They are shifting responsibility to air traffic control, airport operators, governments, and the ultimate bogeyman, the weather.

Time to stop blaming. Yes, when the air travel system breaks down, people want to know why their summer holidays are ruined. But this is different. Airlines have gone from the worst demand in their history to the strongest. The system is not designed for such fluctuations and gives in to pressure.

This summer’s catastrophes are due to several factors, all of which are directly or indirectly related to this once-in-a-century global pandemic that is not yet over, however some would like to believe. As Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told CNBC this week, “the system is rusty.”

Perhaps this is an understatement.

The first problem is staffing. Yes, in the United States, the government required airlines receiving aid to keep any employee who wanted to stay, even if few passengers wanted to fly. At the urging of the unions, the politicians wanted to ensure that the airlines were ready for returning travelers.

But do you know how depressing it was to work for an airline in 2020? In the United States, thousands of employees have quit or retired early, leaving airlines short of staff at call centers, airports and headquarters. Some pilots close to retirement age have also announced their layoffs. Many airlines have chosen not to replace every employee who leaves to save money. Airlines are now hiring, but not fast enough.

A recent luggage backup at London Heathrow Airport. Source: Joanne Varney.

Then there are Covid related issues. Pilots and flight attendants are still sick, and if they are sick, they cannot return to work for several days. In some cases, airlines rely on having all the crew they need to operate on time, only to receive more sick calls than expected.

The second problem is training. Both new pilots and pilots returning from vacation must train for several weeks before they can fly with passengers. In addition, when pilots switch from one type of aircraft to another, they must return to training. Such switchovers have become more frequent recently as the airline retired some aircraft during the pandemic, forcing pilots to retrain on new equipment. In addition, at some airlines, the expected replacement aircraft did not come as quickly as planned – Boeing had production delays, which led to the problem that some types of aircraft have too few pilots, and some have too many.


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