Flights are a disaster right now. Here’s why.

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“The very first symptom of the general collapse was an old one: nothing worked.” The feeling is old – it comes from Doris Lessing’s novel from 1969, The city with four gates– but it is difficult to think of a better epitaph for the economic mood in 2022. From the oil markets to the baby formula markets to the general feeling of security and disorder, it seems that the United States suffers from chronic Nothing Works Syndrome.

The latest victim of acute NWS is flights. Around the world, security lines are becoming brutally long and cancellations and delays are increasing. The major airlines JetBlue, American Airlines and Delta canceled almost 10 percent of their flights last weekend, creating chaos at major airports.

In an interview for my podcast Plain English, I spoke with Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights Newsletter, about why flights have been so messy this summer. This transcript has been edited and compressed.


Derek Thompson: Scott, what’s going on and why?

Scott Keyes: The amount of unrest in the aviation industry over the past two years is unlike anything we have ever seen on a trip. The 9/11 attacks caused a 7 percent drop in total tourism. But in 2020, travel fell by 70 percent. The airlines were worried about survival. This meant laying off employees, dismissing pilots, selling aircraft and retiring aircraft. Now, when the journey picks up again, we pay the price.

Delta lost 30 percent of its employees – almost 30,000 people cut from the staff. American Airlines laid off 30 percent of its employees, through acquisitions, early retirement or otherwise. Airlines tried to be as lean as possible to reduce these operating expenses with the expectation that they would not make much money. They also retired older aircraft.

These decisions certainly helped to improve the balance through 2020. But would they have done the same if they had known how quickly travel demand would pick up again? Almost certainly not. They assumed that this would be a six-year recovery period, not an 18-month recovery period. So when travel demand began to rise much faster than expected, airlines were taken flat.

Thompson: Why does it take so long to adjust? Why is it so difficult to hire pilots or bring back more planes?

Keyes: Being a pilot is not a beginner’s job. It takes years of training. There are many regulatory requirements, such as a mandatory retirement age for pilots: 65 years. There are mandatory training requirements for US-based pilots. They must fly 1,500 hours before they are allowed to operate the commercial aircraft.

Similarly, Boeing does not have tons of 787s or 737s sitting in a warehouse waiting for airlines to pick them up. There is a years-long delay in a production process plagued by supply chain disruptions, just like so many other parts of the economy.

Thompson: The industry is so sadly understaffed that when there is a storm, or a pilot reporting sick, there is no redundancy or robustness in the system, and you get these sweeping cancellations. But was it not obvious 18 months ago that we wanted vaccines? Was it not obvious half a year ago that the Americans wanted to get out of the house? Why is all this chaos happening now?

Keyes: There is a problem with labor supply, not only for airlines, but also the TSA. If you live in Milwaukee and are looking for a beginner-level job, you can become a transportation security officer for $ 19.41 an hour, or you can go to the Amazon website and see that there is a job in the area for $ 19.50. Would you rather help load and unload bags out during the winter months in Milwaukee, or work in a climate-controlled environment in a warehouse for Amazon? This is the trade-off many make. Lack of manpower causes delays and cancellations. During normal times, airlines may have a reserve crew of pilots or flight attendants that they can call in. But now the reserve is not in place to bridge the gap. The result is a large amount of delays and cancellations.

Thompson: Laurie Garrow, a professor at Georgia Tech, led me to FlightAware, a website that tracks airline statistics. On a given day, it seems normal to have a cancellation rate of about 1 percent – or one cancellation for every 100 scheduled flights. Last Thursday, JetBlue canceled 14 percent of its flights. Last Thursday and Friday, American canceled 10 percent of its flights. On Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Delta canceled 8 percent of its flights. Meanwhile, Frontier and Spirit canceled only 1 percent of their flights at the time. Why are the big carriers having these big problems right now?

Keyes: Today’s airlines that are happy not to have cancellations are tomorrow’s airlines that are experiencing a meltdown. I do not want to pretend that Spirit and Frontier do not experience mergers. They certainly do. That said, a few factors may explain why we are seeing a higher number of cancellations among older full-service airlines. First, many of the low-cost carriers like Spirit already trimmed their summer plans when they realized they did not have enough pilots and crew to operate the plan they had planned. The older full-service airlines can sometimes suffer from hubris.

Second, many of the older airlines have hubs in crowded corridors such as New York, Chicago and Boston, which can suffer extensive cancellations during thunderstorms. [which are more common in the summer]. These cancellations lead to several cancellations. A flight from JFK to Miami that is canceled results in a further cancellation for that flight out of Miami.

Thompson: Has anything changed with air travel? Oar we do something different in 2022 that contributes to these delays?

Keyes: Leisure travel has picked up completely, while business travel is still down 30 percent. Now, why does it matter? Because leisure travelers tend to be more inexperienced when it comes to travel. They need more support from the airlines that handle their itinerary in advance. They may need more time to go through security. They do not remember to take off their shoes or take out the laptop. When each person spends an extra 20 seconds, you multiply by 3,000 passengers, and these small micro-events mean something on a large scale.

Relatively speaking, the two airports with the largest growth since the summer of 2019 are Miami, up 17 percent, and Las Vegas, up 10 percent. San Francisco is down 26 percent. Detroit is down 25 percent. Chicago O’Hare is down 18 percent. The business-heavy destinations are down, and the leisure destinations are up.

These changes have greater ripple effects for some airlines than others. Historically, low-cost airlines have had leisure travelers as their bread and butter. Spirit Airlines does not have a significant amount of business travel in its portfolio. Conversely, American Airlines and Delta make the most money on business travelers, which are up to seven times more profitable per person. And they orient the entire business around serving the business travelers and fly more to Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

Because of a pandemic that shattered business travel, Delta and American and United are now playing away games. Low cost airlines have home run advantage. And the low-cost carriers have largely eaten up all the growth in the last three years. Allegiant [flights] is up 17 percent since 2019. Spirit is 7 percent. Frontier is up 6 percent. While Delta, United, American are down.

Thompson: To what extent do you think regulatory policy makes American airlines particularly fragile for the kind of problems we are currently experiencing?

Keyes: One of the main issues being discussed in the aviation industry right now is this issue of pilot training. Is 1500 hours the right amount of airtime we should expect from pilots before we certify them to fly commercial jets? On the one hand, it is easy to say, “You can not be too careful.” Just imagine the attack ads if someone votes to reduce the training requirement, and then all of a sudden there is a crash. The optics are terrible. On the other hand, the United States is a bit of an outsider. Most other countries do not require anything close to this level of training until they are certified. USA historically has not required that level of training. And we let foreign pilots fly to JFK and SFO and LAX without this requirement. That said, there is still no quick fix overnight that will immediately give you more flights, more pilots and a greater range of flights. Certainly not this summer.

Thompson: So when does this end? When can we expect travel to feel more normal?

Keyes: Cheap flights are not gone forever. They’re just gone for this summer. The rolling delays and cancellations you see are mainly a side effect of the demand for travel right now. So many people make up for trips they have not been able to take in the last couple of years, and summer is always the most popular time of year to travel. In mid-September and beyond, you have fewer people traveling. We want more pilots and aircraft in reserve to be able to enter when there is a thunderstorm or IT meltdown. We will have more reserves to prevent a catastrophic wave of cancellations and delays. So bad news in the short term. Good news for the fall and beyond.