- The summer travel season is off to a rough start thanks to hundreds of flight delays and cancellations.
- Airlines quickly found themselves overscheduled and understaffed due to pandemic cuts.
- Hiring plans are in motion but it will be a while until airlines reach full strength.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Flying is back, and with a vengeance.
US airlines have practically been begging the public to get back in the skies during the pandemic. They’re finally getting their wish this summer thanks to the vaccine rollout and near-flattening of the domestic COVID-19 curve.
But many travelers looking to get away from it all are finding the travel experience to be anything but easy. The summer of vaccinated travel was kicked off by hundreds of flight delays and cancellations that are still continuing.
American Airlines in June saw nearly 400 flights canceled thanks to staffing shortages that set the tone for summer, forcing the airline to scale back on its summer flying schedule.
Southwest similarly canceled hundreds of flights in June, which it blamed on bad weather. Now, the airline is saying operational issues also impacted its performance.
“While the rapid ramp up in June travel demand provided stability to our financial position, it has impacted our operations following a prolonged period of depressed demand due to the pandemic,” Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines’ chief executive officer, said in a second-quarter earnings statement. “Therefore, we are intensely focused on improving our operations as we restore our network to meet demand.”
Airline woes can largely be attributed to decisions made in the worst days of the pandemic when they found themselves with too many people and planes in light of severely reduced demand. More than 30,000 workers left their airlines as airlines right-sized their workforces and excess planes were sent off to storage in places like the Arizona desert.
“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 in a recent interview. “Key among them is: How do you bring your costs down to survive an approximately 96% decline in demand?”
Summer has been a historically messy period for America’s largest airlines as the season when the vacationing public takes to the skies en masse. The result of a historically tough season combined with staffing shortages has been even more delayed and canceled flights, calling into question the billions in government aid given to airlines during the pandemic’s peak only to see declining performance as the industry bounces back.
Airlines are recognizing their shortcomings in serving the newly returning traveling public and hiring or recalling thousands of employees to ease the pain. Delta Air Lines announced a plan to hire 1,000 pilots in the next year while American is recalling around 3,300 flight attendants and hiring 800 more before March 2022.
Until those employees are fully training and certified to perform their duties, however, the everyday traveler is left to bear the burden of ensuring that airlines fulfill their obligations and get them to where they need to go, as Insider found on a recent flight from Colombia to the US in June.
But even if a flight departs on schedule, flyers may still have to deal with bouts of onboard violence.
While the vast majority of flights go off without a hitch, more and more are seeing passengers spar with flight attendants over issues like the federal mask mandate. Flight attendants have been the subject of verbal and physical abuse over mask objections, as Insider’s Allana Akhtar has reported, with the Federal Aviation Administration reporting more than 3,200 cases of onboard “unruly behavior” incidents.
For many, the summer of vaccinated travel will be a nice reprieve from the pandemic. But for others, it may be a battle just to take a vacation.