Airlines are taking desperate measures as the post-pandemic return of air travel has not been smooth, either domestically in the United States or internationally. Shortages of labor, poor weather, pandemic-related disruptions, and surging demand are all contributing to flight cancellations, flight delays, and security and baggage handling problems worldwide. Airlines in the US have canceled roughly 15% of their previously scheduled flights this month, with even more delayed.
Chaos occurs at airports when problems continue for more than a flight or two. With high load factors, it is difficult to re-accommodate a flight – at an 85% load factor, it could take 6 flights with 15% seating available to re-accommodate passengers. Add multiple cancellations, and the effects of flight delays may mean three to five day waits before all passengers are re-accommodated. Passengers then take desperate measures of their own, such as renting a car and driving if possible or rerouting on any possible flight to get home.
Horror story experiences typically change passenger preferences and behavior, but this summer of discontent isn’t impacting passenger attitudes as much as one might expect. Pent-up demand and shortages from supply-chain issues, whether for new cars or grocery store items, have consumers expecting things to not be back to normal. As a result, the impacts of the pandemic are sometimes simply met with a shrug – as consumers realize things are beyond their control. The reality is after dramatically reducing staff, airlines have simply been unable to ramp up hiring to handle the pent-up demand.
During the fourth of July, the holiday weekend in the US more than 1,100 flights were canceled and more than 12,000 flights delayed. That translated to about 30% of American Airlines flights and 25% of Delta’s flights. While things are not smooth in the US, activities in Europe have been even worse, approaching disastrous levels requiring desperate measures. In Canada, Air Canada wheelchair passengers have been “abandoned and forgotten” amid the chaos.
Labor shortages across Europe resulted in long queues for security, check-in, and baggage claim at many airports. Amsterdam Schipol had 4-6 hour queues and KLM was forced to stop booking additional passengers from Amsterdam to reduce the pressure. London Heathrow is trying to limit airlines to a maximum of 100,000 passengers per day throughput but is finding some airlines like Emirates uncooperative. European airport queues have been frustratingly long, and are expected to last until next summer. Compounding the problem are strikes from workers demanding higher wages.
Heathrow has had an ongoing baggage crisis over the last month. Delta flew an empty A330 to Heathrow to retrieve 1,000 bags and return them to customers in the United States. Icelandair has brought its own baggage handlers and ground staff from Iceland to Amsterdam to ensure bags were loaded and unloaded on a timely basis. These are desperate measures to solve a labor crisis and the inability of the industry to return to pre-pandemic operations.
The Bottom Line
People want to travel in pre-pandemic numbers, but airlines are finding it difficult to ramp up after cutbacks during the pandemic. The results have been chaos and require desperate measures to try and accommodate as many passengers as possible.
Unfortunately, results, particularly in Europe, haven’t been very good, with major problems in multiple locations. Until hiring can close the labor gap, whether for pilots, mechanics, air traffic control, or airport operating personnel, capacity constraints will remain. We expect these constraints to continue to impact flight schedules and restrict the ability of the industry to fully meet the resurgence in demand. If you are traveling, especially if traveling to Europe, patience will likely be required and expectations for a smooth trip should be tempered. Chaos at airports continues, as airlines and passengers take desperate measures to get to their destinations. With peak vacation season in August, things are likely to get worse before they get better.