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Leon Kaye headshot

Air Travel Is Trapped in Its Own American Horror Story, But the Industry’s Wounds Are Self-Inflicted

By Leon Kaye
Air Travel

In case you missed it, air travel this summer has been far more than a hot mess — summed up by the headlines about one airline sending a flight from London’s Heathrow to Detroit with around 1,000 lost bags and no passengers. Flights have too often become purgatory for many travelers, as well as airline employees, leading to one insufferable, long and hot summer. 

We’ve heard a bevy of reasons, including a surge in demand from travelers after they spent two years sheltering in place, as well as sickouts and technical meltdowns.

But according to the business and government watchdog Accountable.US, the commercial aviation industry has merely reaped what it has sown over recent years. The group’s research concludes that management at the largest U.S. air carriers must shoulder much of the blame for this chaos. The group links the airline sector's ongoing labor shortages to a legacy of treating its workforce poorly with low wages, long hours and minimal benefits.

This cluster in the U.S. airline industry has festered two years after the federal government doled out around $54 billion to keep companies in the sector afloat during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of the deal the feds made with airlines was that employees would not be fired or furloughed through the fall of 2021.

Then tens of thousands of airline employees were laid off immediately after the terms of the bailout expired, and the rest is history. Airlines started reporting growing quarterly profits during 2021 and forecast more growth going into 2022. They expected a robust air travel season in 2022. But now, the airlines don’t have the employees required to handle the massive nationwide cabin fever breaking out over the past several months, so they've started to cancel flights. The resulting stories, of course, will live forever on TikTok and Instagram.

Some airlines counter that they didn’t lay off employees, but rather doled out “voluntary separations” and “early retirement packages” to workers they couldn’t afford to keep on their payrolls — the day after the bailout agreement ended.

As the travel news grew worse during 2022, airlines blamed flight cancellations and delays on bad weather and issues with air traffic control systems. The problem with that argument, however, is that the data suggests 40 percent of all air travel delays from January to April 2022 were due to circumstances under the airlines' control, Sens. Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal, members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote in a series of open letters to top U.S. airlines last month. 

“If an airline cancels a flight for any reason, the airline must promptly provide passengers refunds, as required by the law,” the senators wrote. “As the July 4th holiday approaches, the reliability of the air travel system should not be up in the air.”

We know what happened since, as close to 29 percent of U.S. domestic and international flights were either delayed or canceled over the July 4 weekend.

Long before the air travel industry found itself in the midst of this summer’s turmoil, doubts had been raised about the effectiveness of the federal government’s multibillion-dollar lifeline. By September 2021, the Washington Post and other media outlets reported that U.S. airlines had shed approximately 56,000 workers, despite their pledge not to lay off employees.

“I think it’s right for taxpayers and Congress to ask, ‘What did you do with this money?’” John Breyault, vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, told the Post’s Michael Laris and Lori Aratani in December. “The bailout money was specifically designed so that airlines would not have work shortages. While they didn’t lay off people, they did furlough many employees. There were many early-retirement packages. And now we’re seeing the results of that.”

Image credit: Clay Banks via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye