The pandemic is over, but plane travel headaches never went away

·6 min read

As airlines rev up the jet engines again with travel demand increasing, not everything is smooth sailing.

We've all seen the recent horror headlines: flights canceled or delayed on a large scale, people kicked off airlines over mask arguments, a whole plane full of passengers having to hold both hands on their heads for the last hour of a flight, and one pilot literally declaring himself "God" over the intercom.

On July 17, I experienced firsthand what it's like as the air travel system lurches toward a new normal of increased travel demand on limited financial and human resources, with lingering COVID-19 restrictions still in place.

Spoiler warning: It's not great, but maybe it's getting a little better.

I booked travel through Alaska Airlines to fly on planes operated by it and sister airline Horizon Air. The plan was to fly from the Bellingham International Airport to SeaTac in Seattle and then to Reagan National Airport in Virginia.

That is not the route I ended up taking to get to Washington, D.C.

The flight from Bellingham to SeaTac went off without a hitch. Bellingham even had new, larger bins to put things in for scanning. The Transportation Security Administration didn't make me take out my laptop and didn't force me to go shoeless.

The flight from SeaTac was another story. It was delayed, delayed again, and canceled over what one Alaska worker first described as a "cosmetic issue." With a bit of prodding, he admitted there was a decent chance a panel could have ripped off the airplane in flight.

The Alaska service agent was apologetic as she rebooked me to fly first through the Portland airport and then onto Reagan on a flight that was supposed to take off at 6 a.m. the following morning.

Because it was a mechanical problem and not the weather that canceled the flight, the airline paid for a stay at a nearby hotel. That was nice, but the wake-up call at 3:45 a.m. was brutal.

That morning, we boarded the Alaska plane to Portland and again had to be deplaned because of a mechanical issue. Then we were shuffled off to a different wing of the airport for a replacement plane. This time, the flight wasn't canceled.

At the new gate, I asked the agent, "Am I going to make my connecting flight?" She said it shouldn't be a problem. But then we sat there, well past our new takeoff time, for a crew to come to take the "catering" off this plane and put it on a different flight.

I complained about Alaska on Twitter, as most airlines are highly responsive on the platform. That might have helped either speed things along or delay boarding of the Portland flight.

Fortunately, the connecting flight was in the same wing of the Portland airport, and I managed to get on board not long after boarding started. Once it took off, I was pretty sure we'd land in Reagan that night, and we did.

As I was waiting for the Uber ride, Alaska sent me not one but two apologies. The airline later sent a third apology and a code for $100 off a future flight.

And the flights indeed weren't all bad. The staff was courteous and as helpful as it could be, under the circumstances. Alaska comped me a first-class seat on the last legs of the trip.

But the mask thing was something of a problem. I'm not anti-mask but cannot have it on for too long before my respiratory system starts to protest. We were expected to have masks on in both the airport and on the long flights.

Fortunately, there were loopholes. These frequently involved alcohol.

You don't have to have your mask on at airport restaurants, technically when eating and drinking but effectively at any time. Many people park at restaurants to avoid having to wear masks for a long time.

Because of this, the restaurants set time limits for how long you can occupy those seats. Fortunately, they tend to ignore those time limits when you're paying rent for the seat by ordering a prodigious amount of overpriced booze.

Likewise, on airplanes, you have to mask up unless eating or drinking. So, I drank a lot of different liquids over many attempted and actual flights. It led to an embarrassing situation when one plane took forever to take off.

For the first time since public school, I had to raise my hand and use that call button to ask for permission to use the bathroom, which was temporarily locked for takeoff, "so my bladder doesn't explode."

Gary Leff is the author of the influential View from the Wing website. He said that there is some variation between airlines, but my experience at a U.S. airport was not unusual.

"In late June, the cancellations by American and Southwest were brutal, other airlines less so," Leff said. However, by late July, those numbers have tapered off a bit.

The website FlightAware tracks such incidents. On July 21, it had the total number of "delays within, into, or out of the United States today" at 277 flights and, by those same criteria, had total cancellations at 106 flights. Worldwide cancellations for that same period were 1,794 flights.

Leff said one cause of that enormous number of cancellations is a temporary pilot shortage due to two things. First, some pilots retired during the pandemic, but a much greater number of them didn't get enough flying time and now have to do a few days of instructions and simulator work to make sure that they're not rusty.

He laid the blame for this problem squarely on specific airlines.

"Although airlines took massive subsidies ($54 billion in cash, $25 billion in subsidized loans, plus suspension of ticket taxes in 2020 and payments to airline vendors as well) and these required them to keep employees on the payroll, they were paid not to work at American Airlines. United's pilot deal kept more junior pilots flying, while American sent them checks as legally required but didn't spend the money to keep them qualified," Leff said.

"The argument for these subsidies was that airlines 'would be ready to fly' when customer demand returned. That's not what happened. Travel ramped back up. Airlines published schedules. American wasn't able to fully staff its Boeing 737 flights, even offering 50% pay premiums to pick up additional trips," he added.

There are a lot of other operational headaches on the airport side as well, according to Leff, "like not having anyone ... to push wheelchairs, and catering companies not having workers to deliver food to planes. It was a function of how those vendors scaled back during the pandemic and then found it difficult to hire in the face of pandemic unemployment, school closures, and other factors leading to general worker shortages."

For airline company managers and shareholders of airline stocks, this increased travel brings some good news, alongside reopening pains.

"Many airlines have returned to modest profitability. American still appears to have been losing about $1 million a day recently. Some of this depends on how you do the accounting, but they're certainly no longer bleeding," Leff said.

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Tags: Air Travel, Tourism, Travel, airlines, Business, Consumers

Original Author: Jeremy Lott

Original Location: The pandemic is over, but plane travel headaches never went away

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