As the 4th of July travel chaos looms, experts warn that a combination of factors, including pilot shortages, the climate crisis and even the rise of drones, mean the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. so early.
Over the weekends of Memorial Day and June 16, more than 3,000 flights were canceled and more than 19,000 were delayed. Around 1,800 flights have been canceled so far this week, according to The Hill.
Travelers can expect even more difficulty this weekend – and more to come, said airline industry expert Robert Mann.
“It’s a messy situation, and no one has clean hands except customers who bought tickets thinking they were going on vacation or flying on business,” Mann said.
Airlines received $54 billion in pandemic relief funds and politicians including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders questioned why they had been so ill-prepared for the post travel boom. -pandemic. Sanders calls for fines to be imposed.
Despite promises to keep staff in exchange for bailouts, airlines have laid off thousands of workers and pilot shortages are often cited as the main reason for recent troubles.
Shortages also have structural and regulatory reasons. Pilots are no longer trained and certified as they once were, and many are approaching mandatory retirement age, already pushed back from 60 to 65, a figure that could now be pushed even higher. Another problem is that the military is no longer producing as many pilots as it used to, partly due to the increasing use of drones and other strategic decisions.
Regulatory developments also played a role. After Colgan Airlines Flight 3407 crashed over Buffalo in 2009, killing 49 people, Congress increased the number of flight hours required for pilot certification from 250 hours to 1,500 hours, a decision that has been criticized by some airline executives.
“At the end of the day, we’re not producing as many pilots as we did in the ’70s and ’80s, when many were coming out of service after Vietnam,” Mann said. “And how do you get to 1,500 hours? Everyone is looking for a shortcut.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits on monthly flight hours are also likely to exacerbate shortages. The holidays fall at the end of June, which means that many pilots may have already maxed out their weekly or monthly quotas. Airlines have launched calls for volunteer pilots, in some cases offering triple pay.
On top of that, airlines that laid off pilots and staff during the pandemic, thinking they could rehire new ones for less when needed, and retired older planes, leading to new training requirements for newer aircraft.
But training resources are also in demand. “So you’re getting rid of entire fleets, and now entire crews have to be retrained,” Mann said. “Remove a senior pilot and you create six or seven training events.”
The pilot shortage is compounded by the airport’s lack of staff – whether ground staff, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel or Starbucks employees. Every employee inside the secure area of an airport, including TSA and customs and border agents, must be accredited – a process that can now take up to two months.
Delta pilots picketed Atlanta on Thursday to demand better working conditions, with many saying they were working overtime despite canceled flights across the country. “As pilots we are beyond exhausted – they are trying to get us to fly as high as we can,” said Dennis Tajer of the Allied Pilots Association.
The Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa) recently released an open letter to thousands of Delta passengers caught in waves of delays and cancellations. “It’s disheartening to see customers queuing to book flights due to scheduling issues that could have been avoided,” said Delta Alpa President Capt Jason Ambrosi.
American Airlines pilots recently posted signs near the New York Stock Exchange that read, “Frustrated with AA? U.S. too. About 1,300 uniformed Southwest Airlines pilots held signs at Dallas Love Field airport to protest low pay and poor working conditions.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (Swapa), representing more than 9,000 pilots, says his pilots have lost 20,000 days off due to poor scheduling over the past year and that work has become a “flightmare”.
But there are also other problems.
Even after flights are cancelled, rebooking a new flight can be expensive. Mobile apps struggle to process changes and call centers are overwhelmed on disruption days, resulting in hour-long wait times.
American Airlines’ wait times in mid-June were the highest it had seen in recent weeks and were caused by ‘widespread weather and ATC [air-traffic control] problems.”
And these weather events tell another story – a disturbing one. The climate crisis is increasing the intensity and frequency of severe weather events. Higher air temperatures and drier conditions change the maximum payloads and runway lengths required for takeoff.
“We’re seeing more unpredictable high-energy weather events in unpredictable places that last longer, so it’s hard to say it doesn’t have an effect,” Mann says.
Atlanta, America’s busiest airport, was closed for an entire day last winter for lack of de-icing equipment it had never needed before. Extreme temperatures are already causing flight cancellations in the United States. “They have to wait for the sun to go down, the temperature to drop and they can take off,” Mann said.
Even at an airport like New York’s LaGuardia, where departing flights typically don’t exceed 1,500 miles, the combination of runway length, payload and temperature can force airlines to offload passengers or luggage to reduce take-off weight.
“As temperatures rise, there will be more occasions, in more places, where some flights will have to meet payload limitations or stop en route because they must have run out of fuel,” he said. Mann added.
So this weekend, if you’re sitting in an airport lounge for hours, or later in the summer when the disruptions intensify, spare a thought for the complications involved. “There are so many combined issues to create this and it’s just in the United States,” Mann said. “In Europe it’s worse.”
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