Crowded terminals. Canceled flights. Angry passengers.
Delays and frustration could well be the norm at Logan Airport this summer, experts say, as airlines grapple with worker shortages amid a resurgence in travel demand.
Today, “any little problem cascades through the [airline] industry,” said Daniel Findley, an associate director at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, a research center based at North Carolina State University. “Then all of the issues build up and the system slows down — or shuts down completely.”
Last week from Thursday to Sunday, more than 200 flights out of Boston were canceled, about one-10th of the airport’s scheduled flights, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware and the Massachusetts Port Authority. Nearly all carriers were affected: JetBlue Airways, the biggest of the bunch at Logan, delayed half of its flights nationwide. For Southwest, American, and Delta, it was roughly one-third.
It was no anomaly. Logan has seen bouts of delays and cancellations several times this spring, most notably on Memorial Day weekend when over 1,400 flights were nixed nationwide.
Passengers are getting fed up.
Somerville software engineer Devin Matte said he spent eight hours in Logan overnight recently before finally boarding a flight to Amsterdam.
“Basically every flight out of my terminal didn’t leave on time,” he said in an interview this week. “It was chaos.”
A Delta spokesperson on Monday attributed the issues to “air traffic control, weather, and unscheduled absences in some work groups. Canceling a flight is always our last resort.” United, American, and JetBlue cited similar problems.
But according to five industry analysts, travel woes are far from over. Airlines slashed operations when the pandemic first emptied flights and revenue plunged. Now, they’re caught unprepared to address alarmingly high levels of cancellations and delays.
Severe weather and air traffic control, many believe, are merely excuses to cover up structural trouble in the industry.
“People are looking for a smoking gun” to blame, said Brian Sumers, editor-at-large at the travel industry news site Skift. “The reality is it’s a litany of issues going back years.”
The problems start with labor.
Airlines don’t have enough pilots, flight attendants, and crew members, including maintenance employees and baggage handlers. “That means there’s no slack in the system,” Sumers added. So when an attendant phones in sick or is left stranded in a stormy region, there’s no one left to staff the plane in their stead. That snowballs, forcing delay after delay.
“In previous years, if you needed 10 people, you had 12 or 15 that you could call on,” said Findley, of the transportation institute. “These days, it seems like if you need 10 people, you have nine people.”
In fact, the pilot shortage predated COVID. Back in 2007, as the number of pilots dwindled, Congress sought to address the problem by raising their mandatory retirement age to 65 from 60. There have been rumblings that South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham will soon introduce legislation to bump that requirement up to 67.
Early in COVID, airlines also offered “early out” packages to tens of thousands of workers in an effort to save money, said Gary Peterson, air division director of the Transport Workers Union.
But it’s come back to haunt them. The labor shortage has made it difficult to fill those positions today. American, Delta, and United are hiring roughly 200 pilots each month, ABC reported, though that’s not enough to keep pace with the need.
Peterson added that these newer workers rarely have the operational expertise of employees that left, which slows the process of cleaning and boarding planes. Plus, national carriers are poaching workers from regional airlines, a move that has a “compounding effect” on the entire industry.
“They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Peterson said.
Beyond that, fewer people are willing to work in travel after witnessing the harassment airline employees endured during the pandemic. Defiant COVID-era customers have been repeatedly taped insulting attendants and gate workers for enforcing rules on masking. But incidents have eased since the federal mask mandate ended, and President Biden lifted the COVID-19 testing requirement for international travel.
“We’re seeing career flight attendants leaving the industry, and it’s hard to blame them,” said William Rankin, a professor of airport management at the Florida Institute of Technology. “Who wants to run the risk of getting screamed at and assaulted by a passenger who doesn’t want to follow the rules?”
All this comes at a time when Americans are increasingly eager to travel. Sixty-six million passengers flew on US airlines in February 2022, the most recent data available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s inching — slowly but steadily — toward the February 2020 number of 79 million, though passenger traffic at Logan is now higher than counts from last year.
Demand for domestic leisure travel is soaring, while the rebound in business and international travel has been much more modest. An American Hotel and Lodging Association survey found that 60 percent of respondents were more likely to take more vacations today than in the previous two years.
Findley said that’s a surprise to airline executives, who once projected that it would be 2024 or 2025 before air travel returned to 2019 levels.
Instead, people are buying tickets in droves and paying top dollar. In the past year, the price of airline tickets has shot up by 25 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with airfares spiking nearly 19 percent in April alone. Consumers spent $37.1 billion online on US flights this year through May, nearly double the amount in the first five months of 2021, an Adobe Analytics report found.
With fuel costs near record highs, steeper fares don’t necessarily translate into more profits for airlines, of course. And to some degree, Findley added, carriers are “building risk into the price,” knowing they may be on the hook for food vouchers, hotels, and refunds if they cancel flights and strand passengers.
But after a dismal few years, airlines are delighted by the uptick in revenue, said Sumers, the Skift editor. Why would they ask for less when the customer is willing to splurge?
“It almost doesn’t matter how much they charge,” he added. “This is the summer everyone wants to fly.”