pilots operating airplane in cockpit during flight

MIAMI – The US Senate Commerce Committee chair has requested answers from six US airlines scrambling to bring back enough staff to meet the current spike in demand.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D) sent letters on Friday to American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), Southwest Airlines (WN), and JetBlue Airways (B6), asking for answers to detailed questions about “recent reports of workforce shortages, flight cancellations, and delays, creating havoc and frustrating consumers as more Americans resume travel.”

According to the Transportation Security Administration, about 2.2 million people passed through security checkpoints last Sunday, the biggest daily number since February 2020. The questioning arises from the fact that the aforementioned US airlines have struggled to meet the recent demand in air travel despite getting billions in financial bailouts.

American Airlines Airbus 321-200 N929AA. Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways

Bailouts and Pilot Shortages

As a result of COVID-19, the US Congress approved three different rounds of public funds for the industry totaling US$54bn to pay a large portion of U.S. airlines’ employment costs through September 30 – as well as US$25bn in low-cost government loans. As part of the government support, airlines were not permitted to make involuntary layoffs or reduce worker pay.

Cantwell questioned the airlines, which included Republic Airways (YX) and Allegiant Air (G4), about workforce management, whether they had exhausted all US payroll assistance, and what steps they were taking to address anticipated or current labor shortages as a result of increased consumer flight demand this year.

American Airlines announced in June that it would cancel 1% of its flights in July, while Southwest canceled hundreds of flights last month due to computer and weather concerns as demand was drastically picking up.

Speaking to Reuters, Southwest Airlines (WN) stated that it was the only major airline that maintained service at every US airport it serviced prior to the pandemic and that it did not lay off or furlough any employees.

“We staffed for what we’re flying, and we’re flying for what we staffed,” said a WN spokesman.

On its part, DL got back to Reuters with remarks from the airline’s CEO Ed Bastian, who said on Wednesday that the challenges of fully returning DL to the quality level its customers expected and deserved were formidable in light of the hike in demand the airline was seeing. The news outlet stated that AA, G4, YX, and B6 declined to comment.

And so, airports are congested, and planes are full, but there are not nearly enough pilots or flight crew to fly those planes. “It went from a lack of demand from passengers to a lack of supply for pilots overnight, like a light switch,” AA Capt. Dennis Taje told marketplace.org.

Delta Air Lines N878DN Boeing 737-900ER. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways

A Matter of Retraining Pilots

As the news outlet points out, there is no analogous switch that airlines can flick to refresh their pilot supply. Simon Azar of CAE, a company that makes flight simulators and trains pilots, told marketplace.org that the challenge was that creating a pilot and bringing a pilot back is not an immediate and swift process. “If you want to create a pilot from scratch, it takes two to three years to be able to get them into an airline seat.”

It also takes time to requalify pilots who have only been out of the cockpit for a few months or a year, according to Richard Aboulafia, an aviation expert with Teal Group who also spoke with marketplace.org. The fact is that far more staff than normal require retraining, not to mention those training for the first time.

According to Tajer, a spokeswoman for the Allied Pilots Association, AA’s pilot’s union, this retraining requirement is causing a stalemate. There is only a limited number of flight simulators and instructors available. Pilots retrain while flying and on Sims; the best guarantee to fly safely is to fly frequently. Star.com.my has some examples where a lack of flying practice led to some incidents.

jetBlue e190. Photo: Kochan Kleps/Airways

Pilots’ Sharpness Equals Passengers’ Safety

Pilots’ abilities and expertise degrade when they are idle for several months. Flying a commercial aircraft is not like riding a bike. Without constant flying and training, most typical mistakes can be landing too quickly or too high, or failing to obtain clearance from the air traffic control tower before descending to a lower altitude, just to name a few.

The fact is that the process of retraining a large number of pilots who have been inactive for various periods of time during the pandemic is complicated and difficult. According to aviation experts, there is no “one-size-fits-all” training program. Pilots typically receive varying levels of training depending on how long they have been idle.

The COVID-19 crisis has surely made this task more difficult but it is a process that must be done right. And so, while the US Senate Commerce Committee’s questioning warrants answers from airlines, they do not have much to do with economics but rather with safety and pilot retraining as air travel demand is reaching levels not seen since before the pandemic and not expected to come so soon.

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