Also hard to predict was the strength of the rebound in demand for air travel. A surprising number of people seem to be tired of staying home and are willing to fly in spite of the risk of getting infected. That’s a big change from earlier in the pandemic, when staffing was down but it didn’t matter because traffic was also down; it briefly plunged 90 percent from prepandemic levels.
The steep decline in traffic last year inflicted huge operating losses on the airlines that were only partly mitigated by federal aid. “They were in crisis mode,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot who is a spokeswoman for FlightAware, a flight-tracking company. “They were just doing everything they could to survive. They were surprised by how fast the recovery was.”
Richard Aboulafia, a vice president of the Teal Group, an aviation consulting firm, agrees. “They’ve just been through the worst bust in the history of aviation,” he said. “They’re quite fragile.”
Furthermore, the long-run decrease in the ratio of airline employees to passengers isn’t necessarily proof that understaffing is responsible for flight cancellations, said Savanthi Syth, an analyst for the brokerage firm Raymond James. Some regional airlines are flying bigger planes and packing them more fully, which allow them to carry more passengers per pilot, she said. And airlines are saving on personnel by having passengers do their own check-in and baggage tagging, she said. Those changes can be unpleasant for passengers, but they don’t increase the risk of flight cancellations.
In November, Syth tried to predict which airlines were at risk of canceling flights by looking at which ones had added the most to their schedules, thus possibly overextending themselves. She said that she found little to no correlation between those schedule additions and the recent number of cancellations. “It was more a matter of where Omicron was worst,” she said.
It’s undeniable that airlines can reduce the risk of flight cancellations by having more pilots and crew on standby. But adding staff members is slow and costly, especially given the tight labor market and the training that pilots and other crew members require. Airline executives have to balance their ambition to avoid cancellations and their goal of lowering costs to claw their way back to profitability. You, the passenger, don’t have much say in the matter.
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