More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, this was supposed to be the summer when the travel industry celebrated a glorious comeback. Instead, the peak tourist season has been marred by rampant flight disruptions and “airport chaos” headlines.
On Monday, airports around the world tallied more than 25,000 flight delays and 3,100 cancellations, according to FlightAware tracking data. In the United States, 19 airports saw at least 20% of their flights delayed. The worst offender was New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, where a full half of all flights departed late.
Tuesday is already bringing more of the same. By 6 a.m. Eastern Time, departure boards were logging more than 7,000 delays. Less than three hours later, that number topped 10,000. Expect that to double by day’s end.
“Unfortunately, the traveling public is going to have to get used to some frustrations and challenges and higher prices for for a while,” says Mark Baier, CEO of AviationManuals, a leading provider of aviation development manual services and safety management system software.
Most of this summer’s flight disruptions can be to chalked up to “a perfect storm” of shortages, Baier says. “We’re essentially seeing a strain on a system that’s trying to quickly spool back up to pre-Covid travel levels. Airlines had retired or mothballed some equipment, so we’re seeing an equipment shortage right now.”
“It’s certainly not less than a year before we start getting the impact of some new pilots coming in.”
But by far, the bigger problem has been the pilot shortage. “We have a baby boomer generation that’s coming up to retirement, and that is quite a big generation. So the industry is losing a lot of pilots who were, quite frankly, given offers to resign early when flight levels were down.” Baier says.
It’s a problem that airlines should have seen coming, says Baier. “Even before the pandemic, this was going to happen. The pandemic just precipitated it. You had a huge number of pilots who were approaching retirement age,” he says. “You cannot fly as a commercial pilot beyond a certain age.”
“It’s easy to have a revisionist history and wonder whether we should have done that or not should have done that,” said Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, on the company’s Q2 2022 earnings call. “But you put yourselves back in summer of 2020 when the total revenues were probably less than 20% of 2019 levels. There was no knowledge of what a vaccine could do when it would be found, the effectiveness, etc., and how the world was going to start to reunite. So I don’t look back with any regret at all about those decisions.”
At the same time older pilots are retiring, the industry is also facing a shortage of incoming pilots. “The airlines have often relied on pilots coming out of the military, but the military is just smaller,” says Baier. “We also have an odd little phenomenon that really isn’t much known outside of general aviation, in that flying as a hobby used to be far more affordable than it is today. It’s become much more cost prohibitive.”
The upshot: Fewer pilots are naturally finding their way into the pilot pipeline.
Traditionally, pilots in the U.S. had to pay up to $150,000 for their own training, take a low paying job at a regional airline and then migrate up. That process took years. “You’ve got to really want to be a pilot,” Bayer says.
“The airlines had this fairly low-cost method of bringing pilots into the fold,” Baier says. “Now some of our airlines are starting professional flight schools though, quite frankly, the Europeans have had them going for longer.”
Better late than never. Last year, United Airlines started teaching the first students at United Aviate Academy, its new flight school in Arizona. This year, the airline announced it will spend $100 million expanding another location in Denver.
Delta’s Propel Pilot Career Path program partners with colleges in providing an expedited path for students to acquire the flight certifications and experience necessary to become a Delta pilot in 42 months or less. The program is growing. In February, for example, Delta brought Hampton University, a historically black college, aboard.
Weeks ago, American Airlines announced the creation of a $1 million pilot scholarship fund that will help two students per year finance their training at the American Airlines Cadet Academy.
Even so, you can’t produce commercial pilots overnight. ““There’s no magic wand,” says Baier. “It takes time to bring pilots up. It’s certainly not less than a year before we start getting the impact of some new pilots coming in.”
Still, there is a silver lining. “I’m really pleased to see airlines starting their own flight academies,” Baier says. “This is a much better platform we’re moving toward.”