Summer of Our Discontent

UPDATE August 5, 2021

AS THE SEASON wears on, with domestic passenger volumes now equalling or even surpassing 2019 levels, Spirit Airlines becomes the latest U.S. carrier to spiral into chaos. Over the past week, the Florida-based carrier has canceled close to half of its roughly 800 daily flights. Spirit cites “operational challenges,” including weather issues, I.T. breakdowns and staffing shortages.

That’s a fancy way of admitting that they simply weren’t ready for the sudden rush of summer travelers (I was going to type “surge,” but that word has been co-opted these days). Welcome to the club. American Airlines, for one, is happy to see the spotlight on someone else for a change.

My explanations below notwithstanding, there comes a point where carriers have to fess up and plead guilty. Nobody said running an airline is easy, and nobody expected the passenger volumes we’re currently seeing. But at the end of the proverbial day, the formula is simple: don’t operate more flights than your staffing levels and logistics can handle. This gives temporary ground to your competitors, sure, but the consequences of operating beyond your means is the kind of thing we’re seeing now. You pay the price with thousands of pissed-off customers and a serious knock to your reputation.

July 19, 2021

THE OTHER DAY, traveling between Boston and New York, my plane was delayed 90 minutes for air traffic congestion. This once-routine occasion was something I hadn’t experienced in sixteen months. This was, missed dinner plans aside, a good thing. Normalcy is back, with domestic passenger volume now matching or even exceeding 2019 levels.

The trouble is, the airlines aren’t ready for it. Carriers are canceling hundreds of flights as they scramble to find crews; airport lines are some of the worst ever seen; hold times at customer call centers are hours long. The whole industry seems to have been blindsided. How did this happen?

The most glaring problem is staffing. The airline bailouts of 2020 and 2021 were engineered to keep people like me from being laid off, and they largely succeeded. Without government assistance, untold numbers of airline workers would have lost their jobs, either temporary or permanently. But while this money protected jobs in the short term, it did not keep the carriers from hemorrhaging billions of dollars. And one of the ways airlines dealt with these losses was to trim their payrolls by offering early retirement packages and other enticing severance deals. Many workers, across a wide swath of departments, including reservations staff, pilots and flight attendants, accepted these offers and left. Now, with passengers rushing back, airlines can’t keep up.

Making matters worse, the lack of flying in the earlier months of the pandemic caused a large numbers of pilots to slip into no-fly status to the point where they were longer legal to carry passengers. The resulting training backlog has triggered a short-term pilot shortage.

It looks like some pretty poor decision-making, and maybe it was. But consider the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like this, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. As the virus ebbed and surged, travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week; absolutely nothing was certain, and almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. Airlines did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others — and that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

And they aren’t the only players. Airlines rely on a vast support network of contractors and vendors to keep their operations running, from caterers and cabin cleaners to the drivers who provide crew transportation. Some of these entities received government support as things wore on, others didn’t. Many closed their doors permanently, and pretty much all of them have fewer employees now than they did before. Airport retailers and restaurants also shed thousands of workers, and, not unlike retailers and restaurants everywhere, they’re having a hard time hiring them back. Not to mention the critical roles played by TSA and air traffic control, who also find themselves understaffed. All of this bogs things down even further.

I’m not the biased apologist you might think I am, and I certainly have my gripes at the moment. On-board service, for one, is a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic (miniaturized meals and plastic cups in premium class, really?), and I worry that many of the reductions will be permanent. Neither do I enjoy delays, canceled flights, or endless lines and hold times any more than the next person. But go back a year, to the height of the crisis, when nobody had any idea how or when things might improve, and the entire travel industry was hanging on for life, and tell me what you would have done. Hating on airlines never goes out of style, and this latest mess, at least on the surface, smacks of short-sightedness and incompetence. It is, of course, more complicated than that.


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22 Responses to “Summer of Our Discontent”
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  1. Mark Harrison says:

    Hi @Kevin Brady,

    You are right, of course. Alcohol does not make people assholes. People who become assholes when liquored up were — pretty much — always assholes at their core. Alcohol lowers self-control and allows the inner-asshole to emerge.

    The Romans even had a saying that covers it: “In vino veritas”.

    In a previous job, I worked with crime records and statistics. It is just astonishing the correlation between alcohol consumption and violence; let alone lesser crimes that don’t manage to rank up to a violent act. The correlation is just too frequent to be coincidence.

    The flying drunk problem is not new, of course. Twenty years ago, I used to travel a lot and I’ve seen more than my share of drunken assholery on planes and in airports.

    Unfortunately, the lowest common denominator has always (and will always) define the standards for everyone else. Otherwise the assholes win.

    For the record, I’m not a teetotaller.

  2. Wilson says:

    Yes. Book me a flight on Sprit Airlines. Where the millions of laid off proofreaders now cover for the millions of laid off mechanics at what, 35 cents an hour.

  3. Thomas Zimmermann says:

    ‘Into the sea, you and me..’

    Did I miss it this year, or did you?

  4. Tod says:

    It’s worse in Australia at the moment, the other day i flew from Canberra to Hobart and it was depressing. There were only 6 passengers on my flight (Link Airways Saab 340b) and the airport was nearly deserted.
    We have the situation where the state governments are going into and out of lockdowns with sometimes only hours notice, closing state borders at the slightest whiff of a covid case.

  5. Ted says:

    Pretty presumptuous there Simon. I never mentioned getting buzzed, nor do I need any help. Some of us like a drink and many of us like to drink on planes. That does not mean we are alcoholics. Clearly you have some history there and are projecting.

  6. Grichard says:

    Airlines, to exist, have to be able to manage complex, constantly changing, logistic and scheduling puzzles.

    So how is it possible that so many of them didn’t keep their salaried pilots on flying status? Surely some combination of simulator time and rotation of pilots through the available flying could have kept them current without costing an arm and a leg. Did strict seniority-based bidding made this impossible?

  7. Kevin Brady says:

    I always shook my head about the DC10’s 4 “redundant” hydraulic lines together at the tail by the engine that exploded, but to the comment about alcholol – It doesn’t cause assholism, that’s entirely on the person. In the 70’s and 80’s you could get as much to drink as you wanted, and I don’t recall any problems with behavior like we have today – punish the behavior of the few idiots, not the drinking, and yes I can go without on a flight but happen to enjoy a good wine while on an airplane

  8. Don Beyer says:

    I was informed by an unimpeachable source that Delta allowed 75% of the customer service agents along with the top supervisor take a buy-out at one of their call centers.

  9. SImon says:

    If you can’t survive a few hours on a plane without getting buzzed, I suggest you contact a professional for treatment. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

  10. Ted says:

    The current temperance movement on airlines is making me nuts. The airlines nickel and dime everything anyway. I always pay more for a slightly less crappy seat. Just charge me more and keep the one time flying and fighting rednecks on the bus. I will wear a suit. I will pony up a few extra bucks. I end up doing it anyway! But stop blaming the alcohol. Its the idiots who have no knowledge of flying, its rules or decorum. Idiots fight on planes. Taking it out on the rest of us is inexcusable.

  11. Pam Russo says:

    Well said

  12. Dave Swarthout says:

    Thanks for the valuable explanation, Patrick

    I’ve not had any bad experiences as yet so I count myself lucky. I did get a nice credit last month from my favorite airline, Alaska Airlines, for giving up my seat to a traveler whose flight got moved to a smaller aircraft. Not sure if that was a Covid related issue but it probably was. Other than that, so far so good.

  13. Dr. Larry H. says:

    I’m in public health and a frequent, frequent, out on Sunday, back on Friday night regular who except for some down time in March/April 2020, COVid-19 didn’t slow down my business tempo. Thanks for all the professionalism of the flight crews, especially on those flights when I was the only paying soul aboard!

  14. Mark Harrison says:

    One of my favourite US expressions (I’m Australian) is: The Monday Morning Quarterback. There are no shortage of those anywhere, and in any field!

    This time last year I was more than mildly anxious about my own job; in IT, at a diagnostic healthcare company. As crazy as it sounds in the midst of a pandemic, diagnostic healthcare companies were having financial shortfalls because people were not attending to normal healthcare priorities for even chronic conditions (eg. diabetes). Good business management, effective government policies, dumb luck; and things are almost normal in healthcare here.

    I cannot even begin to imagine how any of the travel industry survived at all. And this is far Far FAR from over!

  15. Peter says:

    Im a retired airline employee, and I for one will never forget the story of UA 232, Capt Al Haynes and the entire crew and pax of that flight…heroes all, as were the first responders in SUX…I must say I am shocked someone would then go ahead and claim shoddy maintenance will cause problems and deaths this summer…Airlines, pilots and F/As dont want this,,standards are still high,,,sounds like the same nonsense we hear on facebook,,twitter about a certain vaccine!

  16. UncleStu says:

    “Hating on airlines never goes out of style”, as Patrick said.

    Some other things that never go out of style:

    – People who think they would have done better, even though they probably never ran any company larger than a lemonade stand.

    – People that act like an inconvenience is a tragedy.

    Sorry, but I have no pity for people like that.

    Regards to Patrick and the good people who gather here.

  17. Wilson says:

    What was saddest about The Pilot’s July 19 emission was no mention of UAL 232 on that date so many years ago. The neglected maintenance, the bad design, the ignored procedures, the dozens of lost souls. And, no mention of heroic Al Haynes and crew who saved many lives.

    It was an event we will see over and again in coming weeks and months as Covid neglected maintenance comes into play. Because millions of mechanics and technicians were laid off and aren’t coming back.

    How soon we “forget” or ignore for corporate interests and hope to peddle what, another bag of rancid peanuts. And the prospect of another $50 because some damn Snoopy doll won’t fit in the overhead. Such are the pilots we have these days.

    See y’all in the cornfield, America?

    • Patrick says:

      I’ve mentioned UAL 232 and Al Haynes many times. I reviewed Laurence Gonzales’s excellent book on the 232 accident, and was never shy about calling out McDonnell Douglas for its shoddy, borderline criminal design flaws in the DC-10. See also my review of Samme Chittum’s book about the 1974 Turkish Airlines disaster, and past discussions of AA flight 191. Not sure what you wanted me to say THIS time.

    • Patrick says:

      Furthermore. You write that “millions of mechanics and technicians were laid off and aren’t coming back.”

      Actually, there haven’t been ANY layoffs of maintenance staff at the major airlines. None. That’s a little different from “millions.” A number of mechanics did take early-out offers and early retirements, and some carriers are now short-staffed now on the maintenance front, but nobody was fired, furloughed, or otherwise lost their jobs involuntarily.

  18. Wilson says:

    No mention of mechanics. No mention of basic routine maintenance of the airliners. No surprise in this column. Mostly coverage of pilots and flight attendants and other girls.. Mechanics laid off by the hundreds of thousands, basic routine aircraft maintenance ignored. Public safety be damned. The important things are tthat Richard Branson and Bezos and their so special flight attendants and other props are safe now. You get to wait to die as your airliner crashes due to neglected maintenance this past year.

  19. Stephanie says:

    I made a round-trip SFO-MSY reservation at the beginning of June for a fall trip. In the space of maybe 5 weeks, nonstop, direct flights were changed to connections at IAH (requiring a reworking to avoid a very short connection time on one leg), and then a 2-hour layover on the trip to MSY suddenly became a 5-hour layover. I guess at this point I’m lucky to have a flight. Anything fun to do at IAH?

  20. Ryan Kaisoglus says:

    We flew a month ago and experienced the lack of preparedness – at least on the part of our carrier – firsthand. Before we traveled, our LGA-AVL was changed to LGA-CLT-AVL. Fine, we can deal with cutting our long weekend by a few hours.

    Two days before our return flight, we were hit with a cancellation and a 24-hour wait for a rebooking. Once rebooked, our original afternoon direct flight had morphed into a 06:00 flight out of AVL…with a 12-hour layover in DFW…before heading to LGA.

    We ended up booking with another carrier and paying roughly 3x the cost to get home than we did for the round-trip.

    On the plus side, everyone wore their masks and no crewmembers got punched in the face.