I’m Numb To Airline Meltdowns, Here’s What’s Going On

This is shaping up to be one wet, hot American airline summer. Things are rough for passengers out there. Cancellations mount. We expect that from some airlines, but it’s become universal, even for the once-reliable Delta.

A reader asked why I haven’t covered this past weekend’s drama. The truth is I’ve gotten numb it all because it is largely the same story week after week with passengers stranded amidst cancellations, and with flights full there’s no slack – very few seats for people to get rebooked onto – which means that the consequences of cancellations are greater than ever.

  • Customers can’t even get through to their airline for help
  • And when they do get through the airline may not have seats to offer them for days

The story is largely this:

  • Insufficient staff to operate schedule. Airlines shed staff during the pandemic, despite over $50 billion in direct federal payments to keep everyone employed ‘so the airlines would be ready to fly when customers returned.’

    They pocketed the subsidies and found (mostly but not entirely) legal ways to still drop employees. Delta actually reduced employee headcount 31%.

  • They’re hiring back people but on the non-union/management side many are green, it’s not just number of employees but experience, they lost a lot of people who knew how to run airlines.

  • Schedules exceeding system throughput, airlines get most of the blame here for their schedules, and there’s insufficient attention directed at capacity — from airport security (mostly not just regulated but actually performed by the TSA, a worst-practice to have the government service provider self-regulate as well as being unaccountable for throughput) to air traffic control (where again the same agency regulates and performs service, which is an anomaly in world aviation, NavCanada is private and far more efficient for instance).

  • Airlines blame weather and of course there’s always weather, but when airlines are short-staffed they run through available reserve crews faster as a result of weather events and so they run out of crew to operate flights. This gets especially bad at the end of a month.
  • Here’s how you want to approach travel:

    • Build in a buffer. Get to the airport early. Of course you might find security isnt’ as long as you expect and so you want lounge access, but lounges are crowded and Delta now won’t even let you in until three hours before flight. PreCheck and CLEAR reduce but do not eliminate the need for an arrival buffer. Consider longer connecting times, too.

    • Travel earlier in the day because delays stack and the more flights your aircraft needs to operate before yours the greater chance something goes wrong. Summer weather especially in the Northeast tends to get worse later in the day too.

    • Consider booking backup options. Mileage tickets are often refundable, so maybe book an American Airlines award ticket for later in the day or the next evening after paid United travel. (While United’s policy is that US-originating awards cancelled within 30 days of travel incur a fee, I will have a post tomorrow on avoiding that fee.)

    • What credit card you use matters Many – especially Chase and Capital One cards – include trip delay coverage that will pay for a hotel room and meals during long delays (reimbursing up to $500).

    • Don’t rely on anyone else. Always be doing your own searches for available itineraries to get rebooked on so you know what to ask for, even if it just means searching for an itinerary to buy on Expedia.

    • Know how to get help. There’s the gate and customer service counter and kiosks and club. When you can’t reach American Airlines customer service by phone (1) they’re pretty good via twitter DM and (2) call an English -language foreign call center. For Delta there’s a dedicated number with priority for travel within 48 hours: 1-855-548-2505 that generally gets answered pretty quickly.

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