We knew the recovery would be choppy and difficult, but this is ridiculous. It was American’s turn this weekend to melt down, canceling 11 percent of flights on Saturday and 21 percent on Sunday. All of these meltdowns from American, Southwest, Spirit, and SkyWest have done nothing but erode confidence in the entire industry, and it is absolutely maddening to watch. Because of this combined effort, I’m very displeased to present the first industry-wide Cranky Jackass Award. I find this so exasperating that I believe it’s time for the government to step in.
This flow of failure has been a colossal disaster for the industry on the whole. Coming out of a pandemic where travelers were already wary about flying, the airlines had only one job. They had to make people feel comfortable about getting back in the air. They have done the opposite with these high profile problems.
Just How Much Did They Suck?
Travel demand accelerated in the spring but then really got going in summer… until the Delta variant slowed things down. But before that, the momentum was there for people to get flying again. And the airlines welcomed them with a “whoops, have patience with us.”
Just take a look at the number of days with big cancellation numbers since June 1.
% of Days with High Cancellations Between June 1 and October 31 By Marketing Airline
Five of the nine biggest US airline brands have had multiple days where they’ve canceled more than 10 percent of their flights. You can look on the right side of the chart to see all the airlines that have had meltdowns over the last few months. Now, in 2019, some airlines had these kind of days as well, but to me that’s a whole different story. There are 18 percent fewer flights this year. There should be more slack in the system yet most of these airlines have done worse.
There was Southwest in June and again earlier this month. Spirit had its July/August failure. American had some ugliness in July at the same time as Spirit, but that was nothing compared to this weekend’s flight attendant shortage-induced mass cancellation event. And Allegiant, well, it has run under the radar this whole time while having a staggering number of bad days. Sprinkled into these results is last week’s technology failure at SkyWest which hurt travelers on regional flights at Alaska, American, Delta, and United.
Even Delta, which appears to be the best performer as you’d expect, has had snarls on key holidays. And let’s not forget the mess of ultra-long hold times on the very likely chance you actually need a Delta agent to help you with something. United hasn’t had any meltdowns — if you exclude the United Express SkyWest problem which certainly isn’t United’s fault — but it still hasn’t been running a stellar operation with on-time performance in the low 70% range for most of the summer. That vaults United toward the top of the class for operational reliability which really says something about the state of the industry.
With the possible exception of Alaska — if you exclude the SkyWest issues — and Hawaiian which isn’t on this chart since it had no days with more than 5 percent canceled, no airline has escaped unscathed.
An Employee Problem
Setting aside the SkyWest technology-caused meltdown, these failures all paint pictures of airlines that have failed at ramping up after the pandemic. The most recent airline employment data is from August and that tells the story.
Mainline Flights per Employee by Airline – August 2021 vs February 2020
The red numbers show the change in employees per mainline flight since before the pandemic began. Southwest, Allegiant, and Spirit have all seen significant increases in flights per employee, meaning there is more stress on the operation. Related note: This gives no explanation for American’s inability to operate here.
This is an imperfect measure, but you get the point. The airlines are returning service faster than they are restoring employment. That means there’s less margin for error when outside factors hit, and outside factors hit often.
American, Southwest, and Spirit have all blamed weather for their problems, and they are right in a twisted, yet factual way that ignores what really matters. Weather did start all of their problems, but bad weather happens all the time and we haven’t seen repeated meltdowns like this before. It’s that lack of enough employees and other internal factors that have messed things up.
Look at American’s most recent failure this past weekend. Dallas/Fort Worth had been hit by high winds that forced the airport to use its cross runways and that meant a reduced arrival rate. Then storms ran up and down the east coast. So what happened? American had to dip into its crew reserves more than usual to push them into service. That meant American burned through its reserves and got to the end of the month with a bare cupboard.
The flight attendants union decided enough was enough. As they said in a communication put out Saturday, “We are in the last two days of the month and are currently seeing an alarming number of illegal Reserve assignments and reschedules… you will not be required to accept an assignment that would take you over your monthly maximum.” Airlines often will bank on being able to incentivize crews to take additional trips, but apparently that didn’t work this time around. That lack of available flight crews caused the airline to have to simply cancel en masse.
What Happens When You Try to Game the PSP
American talks about how it’s doing something to fix this. It brought back 1,800 flight attendants from leave yesterday and another 600 will follow next month. But why is this even necessary? The airline industry very publicly groveled to secure government assistance that would supposedly avoid this kind of mess.
The whole Payroll Support Program idea was to have the government pay employee salaries to enable some level of continuity once the pandemic finished. For 18 months the airlines didn’t have to worry about payroll costs, but they certainly did anyway. They all put out early retirement and voluntary leave programs and dramatically slashed employee numbers, and that upset is what is causing so much pain now.
United has fared better than most, and part of that is because of how it worked with its pilots. It did not retire fleets, and it did not bump pilots off their airplanes. Other airlines did, and that required massive retraining requirements that slowed things down. But United tried to keep closer to the status quo, and that enabled it to come back better. While the airline did have an increase in number of flights per employee in that chart above, it clearly must have made those cuts in non-operational areas. In a post filled with anger, I have to take a moment out to give credit where credit is due.
But having one outlier here doesn’t really matter anymore. There is so much failure that I am forced to award the Cranky Jackass to the whole industry, because every airline will feel the impact. And a solution also must apply to the industry at large.
Regulators, Mount Up
It is time for the federal government to come in and regulate irregular operations handling. I don’t have a detailed proposal, but in short, the airlines need to be required to put passengers on any other airlines if they can’t provide another option in a reasonable amount of time. This needs to go further than the old Rule 120.20 and Rule 240 in that it should apply to all operations regardless of the reason for the delay or cancellation.
I’m not sure what that right threshold is exactly. That can be put out in a rulemaking to request input, but this should be fairly aggressive. If your airline can’t get you to your destination within, say, 2 hours of when another airline can, then your airline needs to sign that ticket over at an industry-standard settlement rate. And ALL airlines must be forced to participate in this program.
Readers all know that I tend to have far more sympathy for the airline industry than most, but this has unquestionably pushed me over the edge. Taxpayers threw billions of dollars at the airlines in an ill-advised attempt to ensure operational continuity and they have been repaid with repeated operational meltdowns.
When the US government implemented the tarmac delay rule many years ago, then US Airways CEO Doug Parker said that the industry brought it on itself by continuing to trap passengers for hours on end. The same dynamic is happening today, and DOT should step in and do what the airlines have once again brought on themselves.