By Tom Lockie
Strap in tight, this situation will not change overnight. In fact, it could last for years unless drastic steps are taken to correct the competing trajectory of several intersecting events. Let’s attempt to “unpack” those events, see how they’re related, and the consequences of each for the flying public.
The Effects of COVID
Okay so let’s take the easy one first, which by the way, is also the least consequential in the long run.
At the onset of COVID, no one in America had a grasp on the disruption the virus would wreak on all facets of our lives. From “supply chain” issues to flight cancellations and delays, who knew?
Airlines faced an unprecedented and immediate drastic decrease in airline travel, both business and leisure related. With the help of a $54 billion infusion from the federal government, airlines began the pandemic by keeping all employees on the payroll in hopes the virus could be brought under control in the short term. Faced with mounting revenue loss and the eventual “no end in sight” nature of the virus, airlines then went into survival mode by offering all employee groups (pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, agents and ground services personnel) both short-term and long-term voluntary leaves of absence. They also grounded substantial portions of their aircraft. Then came the final nail in the COVID coffin – early retirement packages for all employee groups and the resulting loss of a large chunk of their most experienced people across the network. At some point, to return to pre-pandemic flight schedules, these individuals would have to be replaced. This process does not happen overnight due to scheduling and training requirements, not to mention the fact training facilities are currently operating at capacity. With the work force cut drastically and to the bone, early on most airlines flew a skeleton flight schedule. At one point, some airlines flew no passengers and relied solely on cargo operations to sustain what little revenue they could muster.
THEN, with the containment of the virus, things changed drastically again. The airlines were keen on getting back to pre-pandemic revenue streams and this caused ill-advised strategic and tactical moves regarding their flight schedules. Keeping in mind airlines plan routes and frequency of those routes several months in advance (over 300 days in advance), as the airlines restarted their “pre-pandemic” schedules, they did so with a staffing level incapable of sustaining the schedule, nor one able to adjust to the never-ending list of variables affecting schedules every day (crew legality issues, weather, maintenance, FAA issues, etc.). Couple this move with the mandatory training required for new employees, the unfortunate outcome was daily flight delays rolling into daily flight cancellations, along with wholesale cancellations of large chunks of flights out into the future measured in days, weeks, and next month as airlines collectively scrambled to fill their ever-growing staffing needs. A more modest return to flight schedules would obviously have limited the level of pain the public (and the airlines) still experience, but would have still been there. Welcome to where we are now….
Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Several other intersecting issues have been percolating from as far back as the mid 1980’s!
Cyclical Airline Hiring
As with any industry, the hiring cycle changes as our economy changes. In booming times, airlines expand their schedules, purchase additional aircraft, and hire many new employees. Likewise, during economic downturns, airlines typically reduce their flying schedules and lay off employees. This affects all employee groups, most notably pilots. The long-term result? Airlines find themselves with large numbers of pilots retiring basically at the same time due to the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots, currently 65 years old.
An important historical fact now affecting our current delay/cancellation situation is the HUGE group of pilots hired from the mid 1980’s to the mid 1990’s across all airlines. This same group of pilots are now reaching the mandatory retirement age and are leaving the workforce in droves.
Les Abend, contributing editor for Flying Magazine and long-time airline pilots, has brought to light the fact airlines will each need to hire between 65 to 80 pilots a month for the next 10 years minimum starting yesterday! Most are currently hiring in the range of 30 to 50 pilots a month due to training centers bursting at the seams.
The Mandatory Pilot Retirement Age
Well change the mandatory pilot retirement age you say! Not so fast compadre. This age is decided by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and as such does not change overnight, nor within months.
Let’s say the age is eventually changed to 67, this will only be a temporary band-aid to the hiring issue mentioned already. Instead of 65-80 pilots a month at each airline for the next 10 years, a false sense of “problem solved” will only kick the tin can down the road and cause an even longer amount of time the public and airlines will face delays and cancellations, with no temporary solutions for today’s scheduling issues.
As with any airline operation, there are a myriad of issues affecting airline schedules.
One such issue is weather. Like it or not, this affects every airline network every day. Whether airlines model their operations off the hub-and-spoke system or the point-to-point system, flight schedules must be adjusted. These adjustments affect flight crews, both pilots and flight attendants. With mandatory maximums for time spent “on-duty” in any given day (a safety requirement), airlines face crew scheduling issues due to crews “timing out” through no fault of their own. This leaves airlines with aircraft sitting at the gate in a city where there’s no available crews. Reserves need to be flown in, or crews taken off their current flight to man the flight sitting at the gate with no crew. Either way, you’re faced with a poor solution then made worse by the downline effects on the schedules of crewmembers involved. At this point, refer back to the discussion of airlines being short staffed……
Another factor is of course aircraft maintenance. The skeleton workforce mentioned earlier includes mechanics who are faced with increasing workloads due to short staffing to the point it’s all they can do to complete required daily inspections. Should an aircraft need fixing, this at times throws an insurmountable wrench into the mix causing increased delays. Ah, hire more mechanics you say! Same issue as with pilots- lead times for required training and the sheer volume of new mechanics necessary to fly the schedule.
The FAA is also in the mix of challenges airlines face every day. In a well-intentioned move (wildly successful for fully manned airlines), during weather events the FAA will issue ground stops to flights into and out of a city experiencing a weather event affecting flight operations. The positive effect is airlines save money on fuel (no sense circling in the sky waiting for the weather to clear or sitting in a long line of aircraft awaiting takeoff for the same reason). These ground stops are good for passengers too, allowing them to relax in the airport terminal versus being stuck in a seat on the airplane. The negative effects unfortunately include the real potential for crews ”timing out” and the eventual delays and cancellations in downline operations. And it can’t go without saying, the numerous times airport towers or radar control centers across the US have been closed due to a COVID outbreak has been crippling to airline schedules.
The New Pilot Pipeline
One issue affecting long-term hiring for the next 10-15 years is the fact at some point, the “experienced pilots” (former military and corporate as well as regional airline pilots) will dry up. Add to that the fact all major airlines with regional airline feeders use a “flow through” agreement to move pilots from the regional ranks to the major airline ranks. At some point, this option will dry up also. Besides the regional carriers, the Jet Blue, Frontier, and Spirit sized airline groups, as well as smaller airline carriers will be the first to feel the tightening of available for hire experienced pilots.
The result now slowly rearing its ugly head is the amount of time it takes to train brand new pilots. The licensure process is extensive and time consuming, but is also needed. It takes the average student pilot close to a year to complete their Commercial Pilot License. This license allows them to be hired for some types of flying including cargo and flight instruction. With this new Commercial Pilot License, they then face the need to complete more flying hours to achieve the mandatory 1,500 hours required to become an airline pilot. With a “commercial pilot” having around 300 flying hours under their belt at the completion of their Commercial Pilot License, this leaves them roughly 1,200 required flying hours to complete to become eligible for hiring by an airline. This amount of flying time can take upwards of another year, for a total of 2 years start to finish.
Airlines have recently partnered with flying schools or have created their own. This ensures a steady stream of new pilots automatically into their regional carriers, thus allowing current regional pilots the ability to transfer into their major airline partner.
Is There No End?
The short answer is “yes”. You might already be guessing the amount of time it will take. If you guessed 10 to 15 years, you’re right! Yeah, but what can be done until then, and how can I as “traveling John Q. Public” reduce my level of pain when it comes to flying?
The reality is airlines are reducing their schedules. You’ve seen the headlines regarding wholesale future cancellations. According to data from flight tracking site FlightAware, 48,000 US flights were canceled between May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day, and August 14. That figure represents 2.3% of the flights scheduled. Nearly 483,000 US flights were delayed during that period, or about 24% of flights. It causes all of us anxiety and reduces the airlines’ ability to make a profit as cancellations equal revenue loss, let alone the havoc it causes in the lives of current airline employees. There’s no way around this until staffing is drastically improved.
Now, how about your upcoming travel plans? One suggestion is to always book the first flight of the day. The schedule tends to operate normally in the first part of each day (think 6am to 10am). With that in mind, take the nonstop whenever possible. Unless there’s stagnated severe weather in your area, you’ll most likely be good to go.
As you’ve read, there’s a myriad of complex issues and moving parts that will continue to affect our travel experience for quite some time. Strap in tight and bring a good book.
Les Abend, Contributing Editor for Flying Magazine
Flight Aware – www.flightaware.com
Tom Lockie is the Transportation and Travel Editor for the Citizens Journal Florida. A veteran and recently retired airline Captain, Tom considers aviation and travel his ongoing passions . Tom is a published author, featured in the USA Today for his children’s book “Come Fly with Me“.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.