Jenny Kane / AP
Just as hundreds of thousands of Americans return to the skies this summer, many of the old inconveniences and aggravations of commercial air travel are also returning. And experts say travelers should expect lingering problems throughout the busy summer season.
Long lines at security checkpoints, disruptive passengers, and long flight delays and cancellations greet many air travelers who may not have boarded a plane for 15 months or more due to the pandemic.
American Airlines passengers have been particularly tough, with the airline canceling hundreds of flights in recent days due to staff shortages and what the airline in a statement calls “unprecedented weather.”
The airline canceled more than 120 flights on Saturday, 188 on Sunday and at least 162 on Monday, Flight Aware reported. Additionally, according to the flight tracking website, 760 U.S. flights were delayed on Sunday and nearly 800 flights were delayed on Monday.
Weather and staff caused problems
In a statement, American cited “unprecedented weather conditions” as one of the causes of the company’s recent problems.
Indeed, the violent thunderstorms of the last days have affected some of the largest airports in the country, including Dallas-Fort Worth International, Chicago’s O’Hare International, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International and Washington Dulles International, among others.
The airline also explains that it has canceled flights in advance to minimize surprises for passengers at the airport, saying its cancellations mainly relate to markets offering multiple options for passengers to rebook on from other flights.
Going forward, American is now proactively canceling about 1% of its scheduled flights each day through mid-July. A U.S. spokesperson said that represented around 50 to 80 of the airline’s daily departures.
But Captain Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot for American Airlines and spokesperson for the airline’s pilots’ union, told NPR the problem stems from the company’s aggressive plan to restore flight schedules to near levels. before the pandemic despite a severe shortage of pilots due to strategic actions taken during the pandemic.
David Zalubowski / AP
Early retirement offers and time off have created a shortage
To save money during the global travel downturn, Tajer said, American offered pilots approaching retirement a buy-back package. “About a thousand pilots took advantage of it,” he said.
“The problem is, now you have to train a new pilot in that seat. Just because a captain of a 737 comes out the door, the plane is still there and you have to find a replacement,” said the pilot. mentionned.
He noted that while it may have been a good cost saving measure at the time, it has only exacerbated American’s biggest problem: He cannot train and recertify pilots quickly enough to respond. on demand.
Despite $ 50 billion in grant bailouts that were used to support the airline industry during the downturn and ensure they would be ready for returning customers, American has fallen behind in its obligation to maintain its pilots. certified and up to date on flight requirements, Tajer said. .
“Instead, American was the only major network to put pilots on leave,” he recalled.
About 1,600 pilots were put on leave for several months. “This means that during that time they weren’t flying regularly or training on simulators to be certified to fly as they are required to be.”
In a statement, US spokeswoman Gianna Urgo told NPR that all “pilots previously on leave were recalled in December 2020 in accordance with the extension of the payroll support program and began to resume training and work according to operational needs “.
Conflict over a training and certification bottleneck
According to Urgo, “pilot training remains on track” and the company is on schedule for all recalled pilots “to complete training by the end of June”.
Tajer said that was overly optimistic and that a bottleneck in the training and recertification pipeline caused by a shortage of instructors, as well as limited access to the types of flight simulators needed, slowed the downs. things. In many cases, he said, “it can take up to two months” to regain flight status.
An April 20 email from US officials to employees, obtained by NPR, predicted that all recalled pilots would return to flight status “by the end of the summer.”
At best, this generates potential frustration for anyone with summer travel plans, according to Tajer, while at worst, it could be “utter disaster for some people.”
He noted a recent internal message to employees touting the airline’s new destinations under the headline “A Great American Summer.”
Maybe that’s it, he said. “Or will it be a great American disappointment?” “