Since the outbreak, most airplane travelers have been all too familiar with this scenario: You’re getting ready to go for the airport—or maybe you’re already there—when your flight is abruptly cancelled by the airline. What is the explanation for this? Concerns about operations.
Last spring and summer, airlines struggled to add extra flights to their schedules due to a foggy mix of issues ranging from a lack of crew members to bad weather and plane constraints. Unfortunately for passengers, it appears that air carriers’ operational problems have persisted into 2022, with thousands of cancellations and delays becoming a regular occurrence. According to tracking site FlightAware, there were 7,579 delays inside, into, or out of U.S. airports on April 14 and 602 cancellations. Flight delays are expected to extend well into the summer, according to experts.
“Right now, there’s a perfect storm of concerns,” says Kerry Tan, Ph.D., associate professor of economics at the Sellinger School of Business at Loyola University Maryland. “First and foremost, airlines are having bad luck with bad weather, which keeps planes and personnel grounded. Due to weather delays, flight crews are unable to move themselves and their planes to the next destination, causing delays to cascade. To make matters worse, airlines are experiencing pilot shortages, making it more difficult to replace displaced pilots and causing an even larger logistical nightmare.”
According to Tan, this cascading effect means that a flight in Chicago, where the weather may be beautiful, could be cancelled because the crew is unable to arrive on time due to a weather delay in Florida. The airline must cancel the flight because there isn’t enough staff to have extra crew on hand. “The issue is that [airlines] still have a labour scarcity, particularly pilots, who take longer to train and can only fly one type of aircraft at a time,” says Brett Snyder, an airline specialist and the founder of Cranky Concierge. “As a result, there is a logjam that they are still striving to clear, which means that should things go wrong, they will have a harder time recovering.”
And overcoming a pilot shortage is no simple task. To tempt pilots, airlines are recruiting more cockpit personnel, with some offering better salary and incentives. “Some airlines are giving hiring bonuses as well as bonuses for flight attendants and pilots working peak holiday weekends,” says Harteveldt.
However, these are only temporary solutions. Some airlines are adopting dramatic measures to address long-term shortages, such as offering to buy other airlines. “One of the reasons JetBlue is interested in acquiring Spirit Airlines is to increase its pilot pool and help JetBlue grow as an airline,” adds Harteveldt. Airlines have also started their own flight training programs in order to maintain a steady supply of new pilots. “United, American, JetBlue, and a few more airlines have recently announced new routes.”
In terms of this summer, most airlines are doing everything they can to avoid traffic jams. “Airlines are likely to make improvements now, ahead of summer,” says Harteveldt, “so that they can build in more buffer into their system.”
JetBlue said it has already lowered the capacity of its May flights by around 8% to 10% and intends to make similar changes to the rest of its summer schedule. In an emailed statement, Derek Dombrowski, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communications, said, “By reducing our flight schedule for the summer and continuing to hire new crewmembers, we hope to have more breathing room in the system to help ease some of the recent delays and cancellations that we’ve seen in the industry.”
However, this may not be enough to prevent significant interruptions. “When an usual summer weather event occurs, such as a line of storms passing through New York,” Snyder adds, “it will be more difficult for the airlines to recover, and more passengers will be affected by cancellations.” “I expect that trend to continue throughout the summer.” “These days, something that appears to be very ordinary can have a disproportionately large impact.”
While the majority of the delays are beyond passengers’ control, there are a few things they may do to help themselves. To begin, if you’re flying for a time-sensitive event, such as a wedding or cruise, Harteveldt recommends adding an extra day or two to your travel plan to help absorb any flight delays. It’s also critical to schedule your summer flights as early as possible. “This will be a Hunger Games-like summer with people trying to find affordable flights,” says Harteveldt, who adds that factors such as increased travel demand, reduced airline capacity, higher jet fuel costs, and higher labour costs are all conspiring to make airfares both expensive and quickly sold out.
The best thing you can do, according to Snyder, is “bring your patience.” “You can always strive to improve your situation by using all available channels” if you are delayed or cancelled. If you’re at the airport, get in line to speak with a representative. Simultaneously, phone reservations, utilize Twitter, and check the airline’s app to see if there are any other possibilities,” he advises. “You might as well give it your all.”