Here Comes the Summer

May 15, 2022

AIRLINES are understaffed, employees are overworked, passenger volumes are back to pre-pandemic levels, masks are off. And here come the three busiest travel months of the year. We’re already at the ragged edge of the envelope; just wait until those midsummer thunderstorms start barreling in. It’s going to be messy. If you bring one thing to the airport this summer, have it be this: patience.

I’m not the only one sounding the alarm. The major media, along with all the travel blogs, have been putting out their warnings as well. I like to believe that precisely because there’s so much hype, chances are things won’t turn out as bad as everyone says. So think of this post as a kind of reverse jinx. I’ll be traveling a lot in the next few months, and would prefer to keep my frazzle levels low.

Part of the mess is due to an ongoing pilot shortage, as I’m sure you’ve heard. In fact there are two pilot shortages, the effects of which are overlapping. One is short-term and mostly the result of poor planning. The second is more systemic and longer term.

When I say “poor planning,” I’m talking about the industry’s failure to adequately re-staff as things swung back to normal. However, while on the surface the airlines look pretty stupid, it’s not that simple: 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. When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they 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.

Airlines are now taking on hundreds of new-hire pilots every month. This, combined with the lingering effects of the pandemic reshuffling, finds training departments overwhelmed, with long backlogs for classroom time, simulator slots, line certification flights, and so on. Many pilots are sitting at home, waiting their turn. Thus, it’s less a dearth of pilots than a training system overload.

Then we have the other, more systemic shortage. As I talked about in this older article, this is a significantly bigger problem at the regional carrier level than at the majors. All of the biggest airlines are currently hiring, and although they’re having no trouble filling their openings, those pilots have to come from somewhere, with high requisite levels of skill and experience. This is causing a ripple effect downward through the industry. The regional sector has all but reinvented itself in a plea for pilots, offering salary and benefits packages heretofore unheard of for entry-level airline pilots.

What nobody is talking about, meanwhile, is the issue of airspace and runway saturation. This is an even bigger factor than anything related to labor. Airlines continue adding planes into a system already at maximum capacity, especially in the eastern half of the U.S. It was bad enough pre-pandemic. Now, several upstart carriers are pumping even more airplanes into the sky.

Things run fairly smoothly when the weather is good, but the minute a storm develops, blocking off air routes, the delays and cancellations start to cascade. There’s no slack, no logistical breathing room. Even on clear-weather days, the taxiway queues at airports like Newark or La Guardia can be hours long.

It’s hard to say to what impact all of this will have on the summer of 2022. Pilots are just one of the moving parts.

Things might get messy, no doubt. But try to look at the bright side: People are out and about. Borders and attractions are (mostly) open. Travel is back. I wasn’t sure we’d get here, so count me among those who are happy to see a little chaos again at the airport.


“Here Comes the Summer” is a horrible song by the Undertones. Here’s a better one.

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