Airlines are not prepared for the surge in travelers because they don’t have enough planes – or pilots to fly them

A Southwest Airlines plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport next to American Airlines planes.
A Southwest Airlines plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport. FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty
  • Airlines are discovering they retired too many aircraft during the pandemic and let go too many pilots and flight attendants.
  • Southwest Airlines says it doesn’t have enough planes to sustain its model in 2022 and 2023.
  • Airline schedules are highly unreliable as a result, leading to flight changes and cancellations.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Travel is surging in the US and airlines are once again faced with shortages, but it’s more than just pilots this time.

Many US carriers shed older aircraft from their fleets in a cash-saving effort during the worst times of the pandemic. At the time, vaccines a distant dream and travel demand wasn’t expected to rebound for years.

“The airlines were being forced to make very complex decisions under enormous pressure,” Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider. “Key among them is: How do you bring your costs down to survive an approximately 96% decline in demand?”

But Southwest Airlines, after accelerating the retirement of 737-700 aircraft in 2020, is now saying that the airline’s current fleet won’t be enough to support the carrier’s business model in the upcoming years and could hinder expansion efforts.

“We don’t feel like we have enough airplanes for 2022 and 2023, and that’s just doing what you know us to be famous for,” Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive officer, CNBC, referring to its current business of mostly domestic flying.

Now that demand is ramping up, airlines might find themselves without enough planes to keep up and Southwest isn’t the only airline that shed planes during the pandemic. Delta Air Lines similarly parted with three fleet types including the McDonnell-Douglas MD-80/MD-90, Boeing 737-700, and Boeing 777-200 series of aircraft.

Those aircraft now sit in storage facilities and bringing them back into service would be too great of an expense for airlines, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for Teal Group. New builds from manufacturers, including the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A220, are preferable but come at a slower rate.

Read more: 
Airlines are delaying new plane deliveries and seeking financing – and that’s bad news for Boeing as the 737 Max inches toward its return

The aircraft shortage is also compounded by the age-old pilot shortage, with not even pilots to fly the ambitious schedules that airlines have set. American Airlines saw the impacts of over-scheduling in mid-June when hundreds of flights were canceled in a single weekend thanks to a combination of labor shortages and severe weather.

“The pilot shortage that loomed over the industry in 2019 may have abated slightly, but it hasn’t gone away,” Harteveldt said.

Airlines moved to shed staff last year, including pilots and flight attendants, through buyouts and voluntary separation programs in a bid to lower costs. But just like with aircraft, some may have parted ways with too many now that demand is rebounding.

“Perhaps they had lost more pilots and flight attendants than they otherwise would have wanted and as a result, that may have reduced their ability to scale up their flying as demand returned,” Harteveldt said.

Shortages stemming from massive staff reductions also could’ve been avoided since airlines were the recipients of three rounds of federal stimulus money.

“I think that the airlines would probably admit – privately if not on the record – that perhaps they should have been less aggressive in encouraging employees to the pilots and flight attendants to take buyouts and leave the company when the government was going to cover 70% of those employees’ wages,” Harteveldt said.

Delta has committed to hire and train 1,000 new pilots between now and next summer and United has launched a pilot training program, Aviate, that provides financing options and a pathway to flying its aircraft for students.

Airline schedules are now highly unreliable and travelers booking flights should be prepared for unexpected changes or cancellations. Changes to airline schedules can occur anytime and travelers should frequently be checking their bookings to see if changes have occurred.

If an airline has changed a traveler’s trip, they have the right to request a new flight or even a refund if the change is great enough.