Airlines Bulk Up on Staff and Cut Flights to Avoid a Repeat of Last Year

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Photo Credit: American Airlines.

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Booking a flight in 2021 didn’t always mean taking a flight in 2021. That’s because, as you may recall, thousands of would-be fliers who showed up at airports throughout the summer, fall, and winter saw their flights canceled.

Airlines have variously faced staffing shortages, Covid outbreaks, and a revving up in travel demand in recent months and are working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen this summer.

Economy-Class Economics

Despite rising fuel costs prompting flight fares that would make George Clooney opt for economy plus class, evidence suggests Americans are clinging to holiday plans like it’s their liberty. TSA agents screened more than 2.3 million passengers at US checkpoints Friday, the busiest travel day since the pandemic began save for Thanksgiving 2021.

US airlines’ customer service phone lines have weathered endless angry callers for more than a year as they adjust to fluctuating waves of demand. Two weekends ago, the industry canceled more than 3,500 flights, with bad Florida weather adding to the stress. This past weekend, budget airline JetBlue canceled 300 flights. After losing billions during the pandemic despite billions in public assistance, airlines are promising to smooth out their schedules by summer and ideally stabilize their balance sheets after so much turbulence:

  • One approach is to cut back on flights: JetBlue has hired more than 3,000 new crew members but says it’s still understaffed and will reduce flights up to 10% by May, according to President Joanna Geraghty.
  • Another is to forge ahead: American Airlines is so far meeting its target of hiring 180 pilots a month this year. All told, US airlines plan to offer 16% more seats than last summer, according to aviation analysts at Cirium.

“The operations staffing will be on a razor’s edge,” Tim Donohue, co-founder of flight disruption analytics firm Aerology, told The Wall Street Journal. “The razor’s edge barely works when things go as scheduled.”

No Room in the Overhead Bins: Credit card spending on airlines is now above 2019 levels, according to JP Morgan, and the $83 billion in US travel spending in February was just 6% below 2019 levels, according to the US Travel Association. That was the second-best month — after December 2021 — since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, 85% of Americans say they expect to travel this summer, 46% of them by air.