Flight delays and cancellations reduce airlines’ chance to reset customer relationships: Cahill

As airlines and their customers anticipated a resumption of near-normal travel this summer, the stage was set for a fresh start.

The airlines managed to blow it up in about six weeks. Overly aggressive schedules by carriers eager to take advantage of pent-up demand have led to delays, cancellations, missed connections and lost luggage, reminding travelers why they dreaded air travel before COVID hit.

By the end of June, 121,918 flights had been canceled, more than in 2021 and well ahead of total cancellations for the same period in 2019. Delays are also on the rise and so many suitcases have gone astray that Delta had to send an empty Airbus A330 across the Atlantic to recover lost luggage from London.

“We pushed too hard,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian admitted to CNBC on July 13.

The reason for the collapse of services is as simple as it is predictable. Airlines have scheduled more flights than they could handle depleted staffing levels by COVID discounts. Most major carriers have faced this reality in recent weeks, working to ease the strain on their operations by preemptively canceling thousands more flights over the coming months.

“There are tight headcounts everywhere,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said during the company’s second-quarter earnings call. “That’s why we’re reducing our capacity and waiting to grow until the whole system catches up.”

The system has a lot of catching up to do. Staff shortages are hampering aviation from runways to air traffic control towers. Airlines dropped hundreds of thousands workers to minimize losses when business fell to unprecedented levels at the start of the pandemic. At Delta, for example, some 2,000 pilots have taken early retirement encouraged by the company.

This kind of talent and experience cannot be replaced overnight. Even experienced pilots returning from leave need retraining. Carriers lacked the training capability to get them back on the flight deck in time to meet the aggressive summer schedule.

“There are two problems: you overestimated the schedule and you weren’t able to train the drivers fast enough. Management said they had this. They didn’t have it,” Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the union that represents American Airlines pilots, told my colleague John Pletz.

Outside the cockpit, tens of thousands of flight attendants, mechanics, baggage handlers and other workers are new to their jobs. Still, executives are betting their inexperienced and underequipped workforce could handle the stress of summer travel, the airlines busiest and most unpredictable season.

Intending to deliver Wall Street’s profitable first quarter in two years, airline chiefs ditched standard scheduling safeguards that mitigate the operational impact of bad weather and other disruptions. Usually, carriers keep a number of pilots and aircraft in reserve for such eventualities. Not this year, says airline analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research.

“We don’t have enough driver reserves in case something goes wrong,” said Harteveldt.

This prevented airlines from recovering quickly when storms swept across the country last month, forcing flight delays and cancellations affecting tens of millions of travellers.

Many, if not all, of these flights should never have been scheduled in the first place. All of the factors behind the summer slump were known to executives when they set their initial schedules. They rolled the dice anyway, in a bad bet for the customers.

Now airlines are paying the price. A survey by Atmosphere found that 74% of respondents regretted their decision to fly this summer.

“They’re really destroying demand,” says Harteveldt, warning that this summer’s leisure travel fiasco could affect the recovery in business travel that airlines are counting on this fall. Flight delays and cancellations are making air travel less efficient for businesses, especially when they now have the option of virtual meetings.

Many will think twice before giving the airlines another chance.

Joseph P. Harris