Southwest, US delays portend tough summer for travelers

This summer is already shaping up to be difficult for air travelers.

Southwest Airlines customers faced thousands of delays and hundreds of flights canceled this month due to IT issues, staff shortages and bad weather.

American Airlines is also grappling with increased delays and cut its schedule until mid-July at least in part because it doesn’t have enough pilots, according to the pilots union.

Travelers post photos of long lines at the airport and describe painful flights.

“It was ridiculously crowded,” Tracey Milligan said of the airports after traveling from her New Jersey home to Miami and back this week.

Milligan and her 6-year-old daughter suffered delays of several hours on both legs of the trip. Before the flight to Florida, she said, JetBlue agents first told passengers there was a deviation from the weight of the plane, and then they were missing three crew members because the airline was understaffed and then there was a weather delay.

“I really wanted to start screaming and cursing everyone, but that won’t get you anywhere, and security will come and get you off the plane,” she said.

At least the passengers on the Milligan flights kept their cool. Airlines have seen an increase in unruly passengers, and some experts predict it will get worse this summer as planes get even more congested.

There were 10 days in June when more than 2 million travelers passed through U.S. airports, according to figures from the Transportation Security Administration. Airlines say domestic leisure travel is almost back to 2019 levels, although the lack of business travelers means that overall, the number of passengers over the past week is still declining. ‘about 20% compared to the same days in 2019.

Airlines had expected a blockbuster on the weekend of July 4, scheduling more than 100,000 flights in the United States between July 1 and July 5. That was nearly double the 58,000 they were offering in the same days last year, according to data from aviation researcher Cirium. July 1 was the first time the TSA examined more people than the same day in 2019.

The weekend highlights the rapid turnaround in an industry that struggled for survival last year. The recovery has been faster than expected, including, apparently, the airlines themselves.

Since the start of the pandemic, U.S. airlines have received $ 54 billion in federal aid to help cover payroll expenses. In return, they were prohibited from putting workers on leave or dismissing them. However, they were allowed to persuade tens of thousands of employees to take buyouts, early retirements or time off.

Now, some are finding that they don’t have enough people in key roles, including pilots.

This week, as Southwest officials braced for crowded flights over the bank holiday weekend, they offered to double the wages of flight attendants and other employees who agree to do extra work until Wednesday. .

“The shortage of personnel is widespread. On the pilot side, it’s a training backlog, ”said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “Southwest entered the summer with very little headroom. “

Murray said many pilots returning from leave are still receiving training required by the federal government to refresh their skills and are not yet eligible to fly. When storms cause long delays, pilots can reach their FAA limit on the number of hours they are allowed to work, and there aren’t enough backups to respond, he said. On top of that, he said, Southwest lobbied for an “aggressive” summer schedule to take advantage of growing travel demand.

Since June 14, Southwest has averaged more than 1,300 daily flight delays, or 40% of its schedule, according to figures from the tracking service Flightaware.com.

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said most of the delays were caused by weather conditions and with fewer flights than before the pandemic, it is more difficult for the Southwest to recover long thunderstorms.

At American Airlines, unions say labor shortages are contributing to delays and cleaning up to 80 flights a day from the schedule through mid-July. Echoing Southwest, the American Pilots Union said management had not acted quickly enough to retrain 1,600 pilots who were temporarily laid off and then rehired last year or replace the 1,000 who took over. their retirement.

American also suffered a high number of delays in June. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines appear to be doing better, although understaffing led Delta to cancel dozens of flights over Thanksgiving last year and again around Easter this year.

The airlines that pushed people to quit a year ago and are now starting to hire again, which could help solve staff shortages. Delta, for example, plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots by next summer, starting with about 75 by August.

Passengers whose flights are not canceled or delayed are still at risk of being on board with inconvenient airline mates. Airlines have reported more than 3,200 incidents of unruly passengers since January 1, most involving compliance with the federal requirement to wear face masks on flights, and some face heavy fines.

Andrew Thomas, a frequent traveler who teaches international business at Akron University and has been tracking air rage for more than 20 years, believes conditions are ripe for even more aircraft incidents this summer , because travelers are more stressed than ever.

“The problem was there before COVID, and now you’re putting more people in the sky and exacerbating that with the masks,” Thomas said. “The service levels are atrocious. The planes are packed, they don’t feed you, it’s hard to find food in an airport. The only thing that is easy to get is alcohol, which is not a good thing.

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David Koenig can be contacted at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter