By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate
Last month, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry,” which featured the CEOs of the major domestic airlines (American, Delta, Southwest, and United). With the federal government’s $50 billion bailout of the aviation industry serving as the primary focus of the hearing, airline CEOs managed to avoid serious scrutiny despite the massive service failures seen in 2021 and early 2022.
The underlying problem centers around the air traffic companies choosing to incentivize employees to leave their jobs, despite receiving billions of dollars in assistance from the federal government with the primary condition being not to fire workers. The bailout, officially known as the Payroll Support Program, served as an undeniably central piece to America’s quick economic rebound from the early COVID-19 recession. Yet, airlines still could not service hundreds of thousands of flights over the past seven months due to a lack of staffing. This caused a meltdown of delays and cancellations in the summer and early fall of 2021 and again during the end-of-year holidays over the previous two weeks.
While certain conditions understandably contributed to flight schedule changes, such as the Omicron variant, the airlines’ lack of preparation remains a consistent problem. For example, in October 2021, Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights, blaming weather and FAA issues. But these excuses do not hold water, as consumers quickly pointed out that while Southwest cancelled 28 percent of its schedule, competitors only cancelled around 3 percent of their flights. A couple weeks later, CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged staffing shortages that had led to Southwest’s service problems.
The reality travelers have faced does not match the rosy picture airline executives painted at the Senate hearing. Southwest’s Kelly expressed pride in not cutting hours or laying off employees throughout the pandemic. Yet, his airline was still understaffed at the end of October (according to Southwest’s own hiring goals) after the airline reduced its workforce by 28 percent at the onset of the pandemic. To get around the prohibition on involuntary firing, air traffic carriers like Southwest incentivized early retirement and extended time off packages. The results of these practices are visible in every major airport nationwide.
Additionally, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told senators that “large events” of cancellations “don’t happen very often” and that a shortage of employees is not a problem. Just a week later, airlines began experiencing staffing troubles, which led to more than 18,000 flight cancellations between Christmas Eve and January 3. Given the predictable spike in COVID infections we have seen during periods of high travel for almost two years, especially during the winter holidays, it is unclear why airlines were entirely unprepared for the latest holiday traffic.
To be clear, employees absolutely should not report to work when they are ill (hopefully by taking paid sick leave). Given the record-breaking transmissibility of the Omicron variant, workers’ safety needs to remain paramount. It is unfortunate that airlines did not take steps to rectify previous mistakes and increase staffing ahead of the winter travel season in order to avoid the enormous wave of cancellations. In addition to the headaches and last-minute adjustments stranded travelers needed to make, the service failures were especially impactful as this was the first holiday season for many people to enjoy with loved-ones since before the pandemic.