It’s a scenario most airline passengers have become far too familiar with since the pandemic: You’re getting ready to head to the airport—or maybe already at the gate—when suddenly the airline cancels your flight, seemingly out of nowhere. The reason? Operational issues.
This hazy mix of problems, which can range from too few crew members to bad weather to plane shortages, plagued airlines last spring and summer as they endeavored to add back more flights to their schedules. Unfortunately for travelers, it looks like air carriers’ operational issues have continued into 2022, with thousands of cancellations and delays becoming a near-daily occurrence. On April 14, for example, there were 7,579 delays within, into, or out of U.S. airports and 602 cancellations, according to tracking site FlightAware. Experts say they expect flight disruptions will last well into summer.
“There’s a perfect storm of issues right now,” says Kerry Tan, Ph.D. and associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. “First off, airlines are getting unlucky with inclement weather, which keeps planes and their crews grounded. Given the weather delays, the flight crew are not able to get themselves and the planes to the next stop, which causes a cascading effect on delays. To top it all off, airlines are facing pilot shortages, which makes it harder to replace the displaced pilots and creates an even worse logistical nightmare.”
This cascading effect, according to Tan, means that a flight in Chicago, where it might be perfectly sunny, could be canceled because a weather delay in Florida prevents the crew from arriving on time. Since there’s not enough staff to have extra crew on-hand, the airline must nix the flight. “The problem is that [airlines] still have a shortage of employees, most notably pilots who take longer to train up and can only fly one type of aircraft at a time,” says Brett Snyder, airline expert and founder of Cranky Concierge. “So there is this logjam that they are still working to clear, and it means when things go wrong, there is less ability to recover easily.”
And a shortage of pilots is not an easy obstacle to clear. Airlines are recruiting more cockpit crew, with some offering better pay and perks to entice pilots. “Some airlines are offering hiring bonuses, and offering bonuses for flight attendants and pilots to work peak holiday weekends,” Harteveldt says.
But those are short-term fixes. To solve the shortages for the long run, some carriers are taking drastic steps, like offering to buy other airlines. “One reason JetBlue is interested in acquiring Spirit Airlines is to help expand its group of pilots to help JetBlue grow as an airline,” says Harteveldt. Airlines have also launched their own flight training programs to ensure they have their own pipeline of new pilots. “Recently United, American, JetBlue, and a few others have started their own in-house pilot academies or partnerships,” Harteveldt says. In addition to offering scholarships, grants, and subsidies to make training more affordable, the academies also focus on outreach to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community to help diversify who’s in the cockpit.