Pilots and Aviation Workers Are Overworked and Understaffed Over Airline Chaos | WSJ
From long lines to delays and cancellations, airports around the world have been trying to manage a post-pandemic travel surge with a shortage of staff. WSJ follows an American Airlines pilot through the disruptions to unpack how airlines are trying to fix it.
– We’re pushing into a 12-plus-hour day and then some.
– [Narrator] Dennis Tajer is one of more than
a hundred thousand pilots in the US
grappling with this summer’s travel demand.
It’s led to chaotic scenes from long lines
at LaGuardia Airport to seas of baggage in Frankfurt.
– What I’m seeing right now, I have never seen
in my 30 plus years at the airlines.
– [Narrator] Tajer is also a spokesman
for the Allied Pilots Association,
a union representing American Airlines pilots.
The two sides are currently
in the middle of negotiations over a new contract.
And Tajer says they’re understaffed and overwhelmed.
– So there is this global airline pilot shortage,
and it’s not something that can be quickly
or easily addressed.
– [Narrator] While travelers have returned,
there are 230,000 fewer workers
across the industry than there were before the pandemic.
We look at how all this is taking a toll
and how the industry is trying to fix things for pilots.
The root of the problem goes back to 2020.
Lockdowns and travel restrictions due
to the pandemic stifled most air travel around the world.
To survive, the aviation industry scaled back its workforce
with the four largest US carriers alone
losing more than 4,000 pilots in 2020.
This shortage is being felt most acutely
by regional carriers,
who’ve pulled out of some routes with fewer passengers
restricting access to smaller cities.
– Pilots are being stretched
at some airlines to their limits.
– [Narrator] Henry Harteveldt is the founder
of Atmosphere Research,
an airline and travel industry analysis group.
He says that this shortage has upended
the control pilots have over their schedules.
Each month, airlines share a roster of upcoming flights
with pilots choosing the ones they want.
Any remaining flights are left up for grabs for pilots
that have some extra time.
– They earn more money as a result
when they fly those trips.
So it’s a win-win for the pilot and the airline.
– [Narrator] But the predictability
of this system broke down in the summer
when the travel season was hit
by extreme weather, technical glitches and other snafus.
Flight schedules had very
little buffer room to deal with these unexpected issues.
– [Dennis] Some of ’em are 10, 11 hour days.
That’s basically gonna give me about
little over an hour of buffer.
– [Narrator] And the resulting fight delays
and cancellations left both passengers and staff uncertain
about when they would be flying.
This unpredictability has made some pilots
hesitant to take extra flights.
– There is a deep resistance to actually go pick up time.
Once you’re in the system, they come in and say,
“Guess what? You’re not going home.
You’re gonna go for another day or two.”
– [Narrator] To manage a challenge facing pilots
as well as other staffing shortages across the industry,
some airlines are adjusting their scheduling.
American Airlines said during its July earnings call,
that it would reduce scheduled flights
for at least the rest of the year.
– [Robert] We pulled out some additional flying
and that’s flying that we would rather do.
– [Narrator] This is a painful decision to make
after the industry spent about two years waiting
for demand to return.
– Obviously this comes at a cost.
For one thing, they still have all the pilots
that they have on payroll.
They’ve got the lease or debt payment
to make on all of those aircraft.
And they have all of the other employees on staff
who have to be paid.
– [Narrator] The cutting flights won’t fix another problem.
Quickly replacing the pilots lost during the pandemic.
– It’s incredibly difficult to get these wings.
– [Narrator] Pilots have to go through a wide range of tests
and licensing requirements, as well as fly for 1500 hours
before they can start working for a commercial airline.
– [Dennis] A hundred thousand dollars just to
get the certification, let alone the amount
of time and money you’ll have to spend to get
the experience to move forward.
– [Narrator] Aviation analysts and flight schools
in the US say, it can take up to two to four years
to get the required training and experience.
– These young pilots coming through,
some of them they have to provide for their families
while they’re flying these in-between jobs
to get that experience.
– [Narrator] To make this process easier American Airlines
said it’s focusing on removing training
and financial barriers for its aviators
through its Cadet Academy and faster training will be key,
because 2022 is already the busiest year on record
for pilot hiring.
Major US carriers are also on track to hire
more than 10,000 of them this year
according to one pilot advisory firm.
As of August, American Airlines alone
had hired over 1,200 pilots.
– The airlines are not doing nothing.
They’re doing all they can.
The challenge is that they need to be doing more.
– [Narrator] As the summer travel surge begins to fade,
airlines are hoping to avoid the same snafus
during the winter holiday season.
American Airlines said the reduced flight schedule
in the fall will give them space to prepare
for the end of this year.
– [Vasu] And then as we go forward into later September,
October, and deeper into the winter,
we have time yet to go and figure out how that goes.
– [Narrator] But it may be too late by then
as the summer experience has put off some customers.
One survey found that 17%
of leisure travelers said they’re less likely to fly
over Christmas and New Year
because of airline disruptions during the summer.
– This is what we are alarmed by right now,
less costing and a cost isn’t just in money.
The cost is in the trust.
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