Air travel is a mess. Can it be fixed?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Air travel in the United States has been a mess of cancellations, delays and confusion in recent months as short-staffed airlines struggle to keep up with travelers looking to make up for two years of missed vacations caused by the pandemic.

Between Thursday and Monday alone, more than 2,200 flights across the country were canceled and more than 26,000 were delayed, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware. Those disruptions came as airports dealt with the highest volume of travelers they’ve seen since the start of the pandemic. The Transportation Security Administration processed nearly 2.5 million people on Friday, the most in a single day since February 2020. As chaotic as the July 4 weekend was for travelers, it was actually smoother than some other recent holiday periods.

Last month Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline executives to urge them to “scrutinize” schedules to complete as many flights as possible during peak summer travel season. Several major airlines have reduced their daily flight offerings in an effort to limit the number of cancellations and delays.

The core of the problem, experts say, is that while the number of travelers has bounced back close to pre-pandemic rates, staffing levels have not. Despite receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief funds to help retain employees, airlines are still scrambling to fill their ranks with enough pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and customer service representatives. Airlines have also blamed disruptions on staffing shortages at air traffic control, which is run by the Federal Aviation Administration, though the agency denies the claim.

Why there’s debate

Most experts say there’s no quick fix to resolve airlines’ staffing shortages because of the tight labor market and the lengthy training period needed to get critical workers up to speed — especially pilots.

Many argue that the airlines would be wise to continue limiting the number of flights they’re offering for the time being. While that will lead to fewer options and likely push airfares even higher, supporters say it would at least help prevent the number of major disruptions travelers have to endure.

Some airline workers’ groups, including the country’s largest pilots’ union, have called for higher wages and fewer overtime hours, steps they argue would help attract and retain key staff members. Others see opportunities for regulators to help increase the number of available pilots, including by trimming the number of training hours required before they’re allowed to fly and by raising — or abandoning entirely — the mandatory retirement age for pilots, which is currently set at 65.

Some lawmakers have urged the Department of Transportation to take a much more aggressive approach to holding airlines accountable when schedules go awry. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for fines of up to $55,000 per passenger when flights have to be canceled because they can’t be fully staffed. Several Democratic members of Congress have made similar proposals.

What’s next

Buttigieg said late last month that he would be monitoring how airlines handle the July 4 weekend before deciding whether to take any regulatory action against them. It’s unclear at the moment what standards he’s using to judge their performance or what penalties he might consider levying if they fall short.


Fewer flights will mean fewer disruptions

“The main issue is the volume of air travelers that are being drawn into the airport environment by the volume of flights operated by the airlines. … While such enthusiasm by the airline industry is laudable in times where adequate and experienced staff are available at airports, that is not the case now — and will not be the case for the foreseeable future.” — John Gradek, Conversation

The Department of Transportation must punish airlines for their mismanagement

“The transportation secretary has residual authority to crack down on the airline practice of having insufficient crew staffing to meet the schedules they publish and the tickets. That — and not weather delays — is the prime cause of last-minute flight cancellations.” — Robert Kuttner, American Prospect

Airlines are making the right decisions, it will just take time for them to catch up

“I view the core issue as one of a mismatch between supply and demand. You can’t ramp up immediately to meet the surge in demand.” — Laurie Garrow, aviation and travel behavior expert, to Washington Post

There are no quick fixes for the many problems plaguing air travel

“Air travel will likely be a messy obstacle course of indignities for the foreseeable future.” — Terry Nguyen, Vox

Improved working conditions and better pay will ensure airlines always have enough staff

“Layoffs are easy, bringing people back with appropriate security clearance is hard. Also the US airlines in particular have a reputation for being unreliable employers — the boom and bust cycles mean wobbly careers — plus the work requires skilled people and is trying work. These people have likely more attractive options now.” — Addison Schonland, airline industry analyst, to CNN

The mandatory retirement age for pilots should be eliminated

“By 2029, not a single baby boomer will be able to legally fly commercial aircraft. As they leave, they take not just a substantial part of the labor force with them, but also decades of expertise and experience in the air. … The question remains: Why have a mandatory retirement age at all?” — Megan Gerhardt, NBC News

Air travel has always been a mess, but travelers are less willing to tolerate it today

“While Covid disruptions have brought fresh labor and supply challenges, at least a portion of consumers’ frustration seems to reflect amnesia about how annoying it was to fly anywhere before the pandemic. But of the many predictions about how Covid would change everyday behaviors, the few that have seemed to stick involve a realization that it’s not actually necessary to put up with an array of inconveniences that were previously considered just a fact of life.” — Brooke Sutherland, Bloomberg

Airline passengers must have their rights enshrined into law

“It’s time to take stock when disruptions become the norm instead of the exception. Passengers in European Union countries have had broad consumer protections in place since 2004. They include compensation when airlines delay or cancel a flight, and meals and hotel stays for overnight delays. By contrast, the shabby treatment of airline passengers in the U.S. is an old story that gets worse.” — Editorial, Star Tribune

More can be done to speed up pilot training

“One of the front-and-center issues discussed in the airline industry right now is this question of pilot training. Is 1,500 hours the proper amount of air time we should be expecting from pilots before we certify them to fly commercial jets? On the one hand, it’s easy to say, ‘You can’t be too careful.’ … On the other hand, the U.S. is a bit of an outlier. Most other countries do not require anything near this level of training ahead of being certified.” — Scott Keyes, air travel analyst, to Atlantic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images