The days of 'fun flying' are long gone: How U.S. air travel became a nightmare


Category:  News & Politics

Via:  perrie-halpern  •  one week ago  •  30 comments

By:   Rob Wile

The days of 'fun flying' are long gone: How U.S. air travel became a nightmare
It came off as a rare moment of candor for the airline industry on Wednesday, when United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told analysts and reporters that after a year of constant disruptions, including canceled and delayed flights, lost luggage and worse, passengers could expect more of that in 2023.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

It came off as a rare moment of candor for the airline industry on Wednesday, when United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told analysts and reporters that after a year of constant disruptions, including canceled and delayed flights, lost luggage and worse, passengers could expect more of that in 2023.

"The system simply can't handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth," Kirby said. "There are a number of airlines who cannot fly their schedules. The customers are paying the price."

The year 2022 was one of the most stress-inducing for consumer air travelers in recent memory. A surge in travel demand after airlines slashed resources during the pandemic caught carriers flat footed. Unable to adequately staff flights, they nevertheless continued to sell record-breaking numbers of tickets, resulting in more than one in five flights being delayed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics — the highest rate of delays since 2014.

By Memorial Day last year, airfares were soaring, and flight cancellations started to mount. The situation worsened over the summer, as bouts of disruptive weather left passengers stranded and forced Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to call a meeting with airline CEOs.

While autumn was mostly free of disruptions, the year ended with a winter storm that brought airline travel to a standstill, especially at Southwest Airlines.

"The days of flying being fun are long over," said William McGee, a senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, anti-monopoly group. "People will settle for noneventful."

Not everyone agrees on the nature of the problem. According to Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor of The Points Guy travel website, on any given day, the current system is mostly fine.

"It's only these few instances when things go wrong, that they go horribly wrong, and it causes severe problems for such large numbers of people," he said. "And it's horrible if you're one of those passengers — but the next week, everyone moves along and the system works."

Still, many agree about the short- and long-term challenges that plague the industry. Airlines will soon be hobbled by a lack of adequate staffing, something United's Kirby alluded to. On a more distant horizon are modernization and market reform efforts that analysts fear might be stymied by political obstacles.

Those issues are likely to linger as long as Washington gridlock prevails, analysts say.

Labor shortages

As the pandemic swooped in, air travel was among the industries most affected, as more than 90% of flights were grounded. Bloomberg News calculated that some 400,000 global airline industry workers were set to lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

Today, labor shortages exist throughout the economy, but the problem drags on in the air travel sector, where more extensive employee training is usually required.

"The question on everybody's lips is, 'Where have they all gone?'" said Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, at an event this summer, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. "There are hundreds of millions of people that have disappeared from the labor market."

First and foremost among the airline industry's labor issues is a pilot shortage. By one estimate, some 12,000 more pilots are needed. Even before the pandemic, pilots were retiring in droves as the baby boom generation hit the federal mandatory pilot age limit of 65.

"The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren't enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years," United's Kirby said on a quarterly earnings call last April.

But pilot unions have resisted calls for reform. Some fear that proposed changes could jeopardize safety. Others worry that with younger, less experienced pilots among their ranks, some collective bargaining leverage would be lost.

On its website, the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots union, calls the shortage a "myth" and accuses airline executives of trying to maximize profit — in part by refusing to reduce their flight schedules.

But even ALPA acknowledges more measures could be taken to "maintain a robust pilot pipeline," like helping students pay for flight training and subsidizing loans to cover it. Having more pilots available to work would ease the burden on the system.

Other stakeholders seem to be on the same page.

The trade group Airlines for America, which counts American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and others as members, told NBC News its carriers "have been working diligently to address operational challenges within our control by hiring additional staff and adjusting our schedules to improve reliability."

Sen. Lindsey Graham has introduced legislation to raise the pilot retirement age from 65 to 67. The bill is supported by the Regional Airline Association, which says that since 2019, 71% of airports have reduced flights, and nine airports have lost service completely as a result of the age limit.

"Under this legislation, approximately 5,000 pilots would have the opportunity to continue to fly over the next two years, and in turn, help keep communities connected to the air transportation system," association senior director Drew Remos said, according to CNBC.

Travelers check in at an automated counter at Logan International Airport on Jan. 11, 2023, in Boston.Steven Senne / AP

Outdated technology and infrastructure

There is near-universal agreement that the infrastructure underpinning segments of America's air travel system is outdated and vulnerable. That was on full display at the start of the year when a technology issue at the Federal Aviation Administration caused all planes to be grounded. The agency said it has continued to investigate, but Washington lawmakers said the glitch proved that more drastic changes were needed.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Montana, said the incident highlighted "a huge vulnerability in our air transportation system."

"Just as Southwest's widespread disruption just a few weeks ago was inexcusable, so too is the DOT's and FAA's failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system," he said.

The Southwest incident, too, was blamed in part on Southwest's aging scheduling system, which requires crew members to call into a central hotline to be rerouted when a disruption occurs.

The FAA has been working to implement what is known as the NextGen system to modernize the country's air traffic control system, one part of which still uses paper strips to coordinate flight schedules. Reuters recently referred to that aspect as "long-ridiculed."

"There's a great deal of work needed to reduce the backlog of sustainment work, upgrades and replacement of buildings and equipment needed to operate our nation's airspace safely," FAA Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims said last April.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian has said additional federal funding is needed to speed up modernization.

"I lay this on the fact that we are not giving them the resources, the funding, the staffing, the tools, the technology they need to modernize the technology system," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box" recently.

"Hopefully, this will be the call to our political leaders in Washington that we need to do better," Bastian added.

But Paul Hudson, president of the FlyersRights consumer advocacy group, said the Transportation Department already gets plenty of funding — and that the money is being misspent.

"I would like to see an audit of where the money is," Hudson told NBC News. "DOT has gotten an enormous increase, and either it's not being spent, or it's being spent on other things than what's causing cancellations."

But even this issue comes back to staffing. The FAA said in 2020 it was more difficult "to hire technical talent as quickly and effectively than in the past."

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called for an alternative solution: privatizing the air traffic control system. It's a step that other countries have taken, including Canada, whose NAV Canada system has been a privately operated nonprofit company since 1996.

"It's the gold standard of air traffic systems in the world," said Scott Lincicome, director of general economics at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "It is efficient, innovative, and it is a nonprofit private company regulated by the government," Lincicome said, adding: "It's a great example of what the US system could be if we could surmount our difficulties."

Travelers line up for flights at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, on Dec. 30, 2021.Nam Y. Huh / AP


But Lincicome said there is entrenched resistance to that solution — and to many other practical ones put forward by consumer advocates of all political stripes.

"It doesn't seem like there's any appetite in Washington for that reform, regardless of the documented problems," Lincicome said. "It seems like a very tough nut to crack."

In the meantime, flyers in the U.S. will remain at the mercy of their individual airline. Already, U.S. airline passengers enjoy fewer rights than passengers in Europe, according to Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, a European-based consumer rights advocacy group. While European passengers are entitled to as much as 600 euros when there's a flight disruption of more than three hours that's not outside an airline's control, travelers on U.S. flights are entitled merely to a refund — and even that can be hard to obtain.

"It's difficult to claim compensation from airlines," Napoli said of airline passengers in the U.S. "They don't have great protections."

Mayerowitz, with The Points Guy, said carriers would likely pass on the costs of stronger regulation to customers.

"Americans are used to $39 flights to Florida," Mayerowitz said. "There's probably not a desire by travelers to pay an extra $20 or $30 for each ticket in order to have these delay protections that they may or may not reap the benefits of" if their flight ends up being on time.

Airfares have been in a more or less steady decline since the mid-1990s, when adjusted for inflation. Compared with a ticket that cost an average of $558 in 1995, airfare in 2022 cost an average of $373, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

McGee, with the American Economic Liberties Project, hopes that flying in the U.S. becomes so difficult that lawmakers may finally take more comprehensive action.

"It's nearing a breaking point, and this is not a one party issue," McGee said. "There's a general sense in the country; most Americans realize something is really wrong with this industry."

But Mayerowitz said that until those actions are taken, passengers should be realistic about what to expect when they take to the skies.

"Passengers should never lower their expectations, but should always prepare for the worst," Mayerowitz said. "We need to hold airlines and politicians accountable. Air travel should be predictable and consistent, and you shouldn't have to wonder if air traffic control is going to be working today as you head to the airport.

"That said, every traveler should always have a backup plan, and a backup for their backup. And that's especially true over holidays."


jrDiscussion - desc
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
1  Buzz of the Orient    one week ago

Airline problems aren't limited to the USA.  When I first came to China on Air Canada, one of my checked bags (both were checked at the same time) ended up in Jamaica. 

Professor Principal
2  Ender    one week ago

So basically it all sounds like greed. They saw demand rise and just kept booking passengers without the ability to handle it.

Drinker of the Wry
Sophomore Principal
2.1  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  Ender @2    one week ago

Exactly, it's why airlines are immensely profitable year after year.

Professor Principal
3  JohnRussell    one week ago
On an average day, air traffic controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights (major and regional airlines),…

People should stay home more if they dont like problems.  28,537 passenger flights EVERY DAY in the US. Of course there are going to be lots of problems. 

I'm not sure where we got the idea that we are supposed to be flying everywhere at the drop of a hat. 

Professor Principal
3.1  Ender  replied to  JohnRussell @3    one week ago

I should have a reasonable expectation that when I book a flight I am not going to get to the airport and they tell me they overbooked the flight and I cannot get on.

Professor Principal
3.1.1  JohnRussell  replied to  Ender @3.1    one week ago

The fact that so many people want to fly encouraged that. 

Professor Principal
3.1.2  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @3.1    one week ago

Yes.  I rarely fly, but so far, I've more often than not had issues, and rarely has it been something outside of airline control, like weather.  Lost luggage, cancelled flights, missed connections due to the airport not having enough staff to reschedule a diverted flight, cancelled flights that were reinstated without me being informed, leading into a mad dash through the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport to make my previously-cancelled connection.

Professor Principal
3.1.3  Ender  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.1.2    one week ago

I actually haven't flown for several years.

I use to think Atlanta was the worst.

Professor Principal
3.1.4  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @3.1.3    one week ago

I've never flown through Atlanta.  And the last time I was on a plane was 2019, which was when the cancelled-reinstated thing happened.  DFW is a big airport when you're in a rush to catch your next flight, and didn't KNOW you needed to rush until you'd looked at the departure board to see your flight wasn't cancelled, after all.

Professor Principal
3.1.5  Ender  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.1.4    one week ago

When I would fly up North they sometimes would stop in Atlanta. One time I had to go to the other side of the airport to get another flight. That place is huge. I don't know if I have ever been through DFW. Maybe once.

I usually flew either out of New Orleans or Mobile.

I have never used our smaller airport in Gulfport.

Professor Principal
3.1.6  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @3.1.5    one week ago

I generally fly out of Dulles.  Once out of Reagan, but it's harder to get to than Dulles.  And a few times out of Yeager in Charleston, WV, which is pretty great - security takes about 5 minutes.

Professor Principal
3.1.7  Ender  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.1.6    one week ago

Is the star on ones license still a thing? I thought it was suppose to make it easier to travel, or something.

Professor Principal
3.1.8  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @3.1.7    one week ago

Yes.  You'll have to have one for domestic flights, starting in 2025.

Professor Principal
3.1.9  Texan1211  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.1.8    one week ago

IF they don't push the date back yet again!

Professor Principal
3.1.10  sandy-2021492  replied to  Texan1211 @3.1.9    one week ago

Yeah, I didn't know they'd pushed it back this time until I looked it up.

Professor Principal
3.1.11  Texan1211  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.1.10    one week ago

whats funny is the law was passed in 2005. I guess 20 years is longer than anticipated but it is the federal government so who knows?

Professor Principal
3.1.12  Ender  replied to  Texan1211 @3.1.11    one week ago

I have had it for a while. That is why I was wondering as I never really heard anything else about it.

Professor Principal
3.1.13  Texan1211  replied to  Ender @3.1.12    one week ago

many states have implemented it and the deadline keeps moving because some states haven't got their shir together yet 

Greg Jones
Professor Guide
3.2  Greg Jones  replied to  JohnRussell @3    one week ago

"I'm not sure where we got the idea that we are supposed to be flying everywhere at the drop of a hat." 

Oh, I reckon because it's quicker than driving or taking the bus. Personally, I prefer trains

Professor Principal
3.2.1  JohnRussell  replied to  Greg Jones @3.2    one week ago

The idea that nothing will go wrong with 28,000 passenger flights every day is a pipedream. 

Professor Principal
3.2.2  sandy-2021492  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.1    one week ago

A pipe dream nobody has.

Nobody expects that there will never be a problem.  Just that they should be the exception rather than the rule.

Professor Principal
3.2.3  JohnRussell  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.2.2    one week ago
"The system simply can't handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth," Kirby said. "There are a number of airlines who cannot fly their schedules. The customers are paying the price."

Do the airlines create the volume, or does passenger demand create the volume? 

If the airlines cut back on the number of flights the problem would only get worse. I have a 30 year old unmarried niece who works as a traveling nurse who when she has time off work likes to fly all over the country seeing new places and cities. Its too much.  I'm not excusing the airlines, but flying all over the place, be it for fun or business, may not be sustainable. Stay home for a change.  

Professor Principal
3.2.4  sandy-2021492  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.3    one week ago

John, every time I've flown, I've done everything by the book.  Checked in online, where it was an option.  Boarding passes printed out way in advance, before downloading them onto a phone became a thing.  Luggage tagged and weighed to be sure it wasn't overweight.  Arrived early, passport at my fingertips, and headed straight to my departure gate.  No liquids in either my hands or my carry-on.  If I can do my job, they can do theirs.

I've flown for 6 vacations/weekend getaways.  The only one that went smoothly was the first one.  After that, there were minor things like weather delays, all the way up to lost luggage (twice), flights being cancelled, then reinstated without my knowledge until right before boarding (twice), a diversion due to weather (not the airline's fault), in which only one passenger was allowed to de-board and re-book, because the airport "couldn't handle" the 18 or so of us on that plane, which caused us to miss our connection, necessitating arrival at an entirely different airport if my sister wasn't to miss most of a pre-paid weekend medical conference, and a group vacation scheduled months in advance being completely cancelled for no reason we were given, forcing us to rebook seats, on the same flight.

Basically, 4 trips out of 6 had major problems, mostly within the airline's control.  That's a dismal track record.

Professor Principal
3.2.5  Ender  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.2.4    one week ago

I saw a pic someone took from out of the airplane window. Showed a single suitcase lying out there by itself in the taxi like area.

They titled it something like, someone is going to have a bad day...

Professor Principal
3.2.6  sandy-2021492  replied to  Ender @3.2.5    one week ago

My sis decided to go shopping on the airline's dime, since she was at a medical conference, and their policy was to allow $150/day, IIRC, for lost luggage.  She only had the jeans she was wearing on the flight, and it was considered bad form at the time to show up in anything less formal than business attire (not business casual, either).  So she had a shopping spree in Palm Springs, where her conference was held.  It made up for the fact that instead of Palm Springs, we had to land at LAX, rent a car, and then drive through LA rush hour to Palm Springs, which was pretty nervewracking.

Professor Principal
4  Kavika     one week ago

 I retired in 2005 I was constantly on a plane going somewhere in the world. I was a million mile flyer on a couple of airlines. After 2001 I cut my travel quite a bit. Red and I flew free everywhere in the world for years and after I retired we used up as many miles as possible going to Hawaii, the South Pacific and Asia. For the last few years I haven't been on a plane and don't care if I never get on one again.


Professor Principal
4.1  Ender  replied to  Kavika @4    one week ago

Come on. All that flying, we know you had to have joined the mile high club....jrSmiley_100_smiley_image.jpg

al Jizzerror
Junior Expert
4.1.1  al Jizzerror  replied to  Ender @4.1    one week ago
you had to have joined the mile high club.

I joined that other "mile high club".

Decades ago, I was flying to go to boot camp.  I had two joints in my pack of cigarettes that I needed to burn. So i went to the bathroom after takeoff and smoked them as quickly as possible.  I carefully blew all of the smoke directly into the noisy vent.  When I emerged I was confronted by two pissed of flight attendants.  They said, "WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO?  GET EVERYONE ON THE PLANE STONED?"  I said, "It's okay.  I'm not going to charge them, it was a freebie."  They weren't amused.

When I deplaned I expected to be arrested (all of the evidence had been burned).

I don't know what the altitude of the plane was (probably well over a mile) butt I was definitely high.

Junior Participates
4.2  shona1  replied to  Kavika @4    one week ago

Morning.. other than to the Land Down Under to visit the rellies..

Professor Principal
4.2.1  Kavika   replied to  shona1 @4.2    one week ago

A lot of flights to and from OZ/US and also from OZ to Singapore, NZ, etc.


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