(The Hill) — Americans are headed into an ugly Fourth of July travel weekend with 1,800 flights canceled already this week with days left to go.
Airlines are struggling to meet surging demand after pandemic lockdowns and amid pilot and staffing shortages, but they are also accusing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of not having adequate staffing and failing to provide a plan on personnel ahead of the summer holiday.
Consumer groups and the Biden administration, however, are blaming the airlines, which won tens of billions of dollars in stimulus payments during the coronavirus pandemic as flights dried up. The government argues the handouts should have allowed the airlines to keep themselves fully staffed as passengers returned.
For passengers, the bickering foreshadows what could be a miserable travel experience this week and this summer as people seek what are in some cases their first real vacations since 2020 or 2019.
Air ticket prices are on the rise, but so are delays and cancellations, meaning travelers can’t be sure they’ll get to their destination on time — if at all.
As customer complaints surge, the FAA is pushing back on airlines, pointing to the pandemic relief.
“People expect when they buy an airline ticket that they’ll get where they need to go safely, efficiently, reliably and affordably. After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief to help save the airlines from mass layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve to have their expectations met,” an agency spokesperson said.
The FAA’s criticism of carriers echoes similar complaints from pilots unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association, which wrote in a letter last month that “it is clear to all that the airlines have mismanaged this critical relief package, which was specifically designed to make certain that airlines were prepared to meet the increase in travel demand we are experiencing today.”
Airlines have defended their decision to furlough workers and offer early retirements to pilots at the height of the pandemic, when minimal demand for air travel crushed carriers’ finances.
In response to congressional scrutiny last year, Airlines for America (A4A) told lawmakers that federal COVID-19 aid covered 77 percent of the carriers’ payroll costs, saving roughly 736,000 industry jobs. But airlines say they were still forced to reduce staff, particularly when federal aid temporarily lapsed in late 2020.
It’s not clear that staffing issues will be resolved any time soon. While the industry aims to hire 12,000 pilots this year, the FAA issued fewer than 5,000 pilot training certificates in 2021.
Meanwhile, airlines are pinning some of the blame for passengers’ travel woes on the FAA, saying the agency is also short-staffed.
The airline industry called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to request a meeting to discuss the FAA’s controller staffer plan for the upcoming July 4 weekend.
The letter from A4A called for Buttigieg to ensure adequate staffing at key FAA facilities and called for the department to release its staffing plan for the July 4 weekend, saying the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) shared its plan.
In its letter, A4A singled out FAA staffing issues at its New York and Jacksonville facilities, saying the latter had been understaffed for 27 of the previous 30 days. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby also highlighted those areas as some of the most pressing bottlenecks in an interview with CNN last week.
In response to the letter, the FAA claimed there is no system-wide air traffic controller staffing shortage and told The Hill that staff issues have occurred for a few hours at a few facilities due to COVID-19 and other factors. The agency has argued that it has acted on the issues raised in the letter by adding alternate routes, placing more controllers in high-demand areas and increased data sharing.
Still, the debate over where to place blame for air travel challenges will likely escalate this weekend if Americans face problems at the airport and don’t see their flights taking off on time.
“Airline staffing, scheduling and weather are the leading causes of delays and cancellations. Even A4A letter admits that,” said a source familiar with the debate.
Going into this summer, carriers trimmed their flight schedules in an effort to avoid a repeat of last year’s delays and cancellations and blunt the impact of soaring fuel costs stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Experts say that the lighter schedules will help avoid a total disaster during summer travel. But because planes are so packed, travelers will find it difficult to find a replacement flight if their trip is delayed or canceled.
The FAA last week granted United Airlines a waiver to eliminate 50 daily departures from its Newark, N.J., hub beginning on Friday, just in time for the holiday weekend. The airline says more flights were scheduled than the airport could handle due to air traffic control staffing challenges and ongoing construction.
“Even though we have the planes, pilots, crews and staff to support our Newark schedule, this waiver will allow us to remove about 50 daily departures which should help minimize excessive delays and improve on-time performance,” United COO Jon Roitman said in a memo to employees last week.
Other airlines are attempting to avoid schedule cuts by implementing significant pay increases to retain employees.
Envoy Air, a regional carrier wholly owned by American Airlines, earlier this month increased its new pay for pilots and added an additional 50 percent raise for two years.
And as the airline looks to avoid canceling flights during the upcoming high-demand period, it is now also offering pilots further pay incentives to cover any open trips in July.
“As part of the proactive strategy to run a reliable schedule during the peak summer travel season, Envoy is offering pilots triple pay to pick up uncovered trips on their days off in the month of July,” an airline spokesperson said. “This will only be offered if there are open trips available, and currently Envoy is fully covered with its flight schedule this summer.”
Despite fears of more flight delays and cancellations, Americans are expected to be on the move this weekend.
The TSA expects to see a record 3 million passengers on the busiest day this summer, while AAA predicts 3.55 million people will travel by air over the Independence Day holiday, up from 3.5 million people in 2021.
“The nation is traveling again, and all of us must work together to ensure the public is safe and that airline travel is efficient,” a FAA spokesperson said.