You don’t have to tell Christi Ginn it’s going to be a challenging summer for air travel.
She has already experienced it.
The Dublin resident’s flight last week from Phoenix to Oakland that should have taken 90 minutes became a four-hour headache. She, her daughter and other passengers — told that their flight was on time — boarded a Southwest plane that then sat on the tarmac in stifling 115-degree heat.
Thankfully, she said, an off-duty pilot taking the flight turned on the air conditioning so the passengers could cool down while they awaited the arrival of their pilots, who had yet to land in Arizona.
“No explanation, no apologies, nothing,” she said, adding that others had it worse and missed connecting flights for Hawaiian vacations. “I sent a complaint to Southwest and received a reply the next day that more or less said, sorry, things happen.”
Travel experts say things are going to happen, all right, as airlines and airports struggle to meet the pent-up demand for vacations now that more than half of all Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Thousands of flights this month have been canceled and thousands more delayed for myriad reasons: American Airlines blamed “unprecedented” weather conditions at its major hubs. Southwest Airlines was plagued by IT problems for several days. And for most carriers, there simply are not enough employees after last year’s buyouts, retirements and other attrition related to the pandemic.
“The airlines are short-staffed, not just for pilots but agents, which is why there are long back-ups to even call reservations,” said travel expert John DiScala, aka JohnnyJet.com, who is based in Los Angeles.
The cockpit jobs, however, are the crucial ones to fill. When American furloughed pilots last year, pilot and union spokesman Dennis Tajer of the Allied Pilots Association warned that it could take more than a year for the carrier to ramp up again because of the industry’s rigorous training requirements.
“It takes months and months … to get these pilots back up and flying,” Tajer told CNBC. “The public,” by contrast, “is ready to fly when it is safe to fly.”
American is now “adjusting a fraction of our scheduled flying” — or canceling — about 1,000 flights through mid-July so as to “minimize surprises at the airport,” spokesman Derek Walls said. “We made these changes with the goal of impacting the fewest number of customers by adjusting flights in markets where we have multiple options to rebook on other flights.”`
On social media, American’s customers reacted angrily to that news by pointing out that the airline reported accepting $5.8 billion in COVID payroll relief last year while laying off thousands of employees.
Southwest, which didn’t enact involuntary furloughs last year (nor has it ever during its 50-year history, a spokesman said), is facing lingering customer criticism about its lack of communication during the IT meltdown.
Los Angeles passenger Shelley Carr said airline reps told her the problems she experienced were related to weather.
“It was easier for me to travel to Tanzania” — a 20-hour global trip she took some years ago — “than for me to travel from Burbank to New York” via Southwest, she said. Especially since she never actually made it to her planned destination, New York’s La Guardia.
“5 airports, 8 flight delays, 4 gate changes and 2 days. But I’m finally here!” she posted on Facebook on June 11 from Hartford, Connecticut.
Now, with those IT issues resolved, Southwest’s “summer fleet and staffing plans are prepared” for the travel demands, a representative said. The staff encouraged inconvenienced travelers to reach out to the customer relations department so that any “individual concerns” could be reviewed.
Delta Air Lines, which cut its workforce last year via buyouts and early retirements, on Tuesday announced plans to hire thousands of new and contract employees and even reach out to former workers to fill short-term jobs, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
For passengers, new hires can’t come soon enough. According to a survey by Cirium, a flight data provider, 78% of American leisure travelers are ready to return to the skies this summer. And soon after, business travel is expected to start rebounding, with 67% of respondents who fly for business saying they think their employers will give them the go-ahead within the next few months.
“Every summer you have to pack your patience,” Johnny Jet said. “But this time you have to bring an additional bag.”