In June, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg hit US airlines hard for what was admittedly a tough 12 months over operational safety. The goal was to draw a line in the sand and try to train better for everyone this summer. This summer has had its challenges for the US airline industry, but it has been better than the previous 12 months. This was mainly due to airlines cutting back on schedules and abandoning flights that would likely have been profitable given the strong summer travel demand.
It would be nice if it were as easy as just banging on the table demanding better results and then getting them. Complex problems often have complex answers, and airline reliability is one of them. Rather than assuming that one group, the airlines operating in the US, can handle the operational challenges themselves, a more practical solution requires the involvement of many more stakeholders:
Airlines make a difference
Of course, as this summer’s premature flight schedule cut demonstrated, airlines can compromise their own reliability. On its own, this is an expensive and not entirely effective strategy. Cutting flights during periods of high demand increases fares for consumers. Also, the slot regulations at New York and Washington, DC airports have “use it or lose it” policies, making it difficult to say goodbye to these competitive areas.
The biggest way for airlines to meet this challenge is to better align the marketing plan with operational realities. Every airline does this to some degree, and airlines have gotten better at it. Still, in some cases, airlines have been surprised by staff shortages or limited flexibility when things get out of hand. This suggests that more can be done here, as operators often have a pretty clear idea of when a planned schedule will fail. Airlines create their budgets based on projected schedules because while the schedule determines the top line, it also defines many of the companies’ costs. Often, these budgets become the basis for forecasts, and as such, cutting originally scheduled flights often leads to investor concern and consumer frustration.
Air traffic control plays a major role
Aircraft move through commercial airspace in a positively controlled, well-structured environment. When Air Traffic Control (ATC) imposes a ground stop, further separation, or stopovers, these instructions are always aimed at good ideas given the weather, congestion, or other issues being addressed. But the result is often flight delays and passengers don’t see the cause in these cases. There will be no real sustainable improvement in reliability until airlines and ATC sing from the same hymnal.
Both airlines and ATC are affected by labor shortages and both have problems to address in this area. It’s not at fault, although some airlines have attempted to do just that. It’s a realization that planes can’t go anywhere or move faster than ATC allows. Cooperation is the only solution, and for the DOT Secretary to only involve the airlines when ATC is under DOT control (via the FAA) smacks of political gimmicks versus real solutions.
With the previous solution, flight schedules that are not realistic for the ATC environment are no different than when the airline’s own operators are too busy. Meanwhile, airlines are struggling by padding more block time, which is the time they say to get from A to B. This gives them more leeway to recover if things go wrong, but it also increases pilot and flight attendant salaries and reduces the number of flights an airplane can make in a 24-hour period. Ultimately, consumers end up paying with fewer flights and higher fares compared to a world where all stakeholders sit down to find the best solutions.
Unions must join the fight
The last year or so has seen the labor issue take center stage in many companies. In airlines, this was made even more difficult by the fact that airlines allowed early retirement for senior executives shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic. Yield on demand was completely unknown at the time, so this seemed like a smart move at the time. The relatively quick return, particularly in leisure travel, has resulted in many airlines fighting for employees and has given unions new leverage at the negotiating table.
It’s no problem if, given the current conditions, the unions flex their muscles to secure some new treaty improvements. But working with management and helping bring the industry back to a predictable state is in everyone’s interest. This could mean temporary flexibility in staffing, or more than the usual ability to pick up time when it’s available. No one is suggesting not getting paid for it, but matching flights with available crews has become a particular challenge for many airlines. What better time to show how valuable and necessary these crew members are?
Airports can help
In Europe, faced with labor shortages, airports have taken drastic measures to improve reliability. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has limited flights and even suggested that passengers should not check baggage when connecting. London’s Heathrow Airport has taken similar steps. In the US, airports are run by government agencies and have more of a public service mentality to stay open and handle all scheduled flights.
Airports can help make the industry reliable again and deserve a seat at the table to explore how this can be done holistically. This includes their operations both airside and groundside. On the airside, this could mean ensuring ground control staffing and training is complete and traffic flow is well managed. On the ground side, it could be as simple as better signage and self-service options for passengers. With every flight beginning and ending at an airport, it’s easy to see the importance of this critical piece of infrastructure in place for ultimate reliability.
Technology and infrastructure are needed
Many have pushed for “next generation” air traffic control systems and controls. Experts like ATH Group have continuously focused on better ways to manage the air system and ways to create more flights in restricted airspace. While this will take longer than other things on this list, what is ultimately needed is a better system that routes planes, separates planes, and more efficiently manages the thousands of daily flights in and around many restricted airspaces.
Aircraft have become smarter and many airlines are using predictive maintenance systems to reduce the incidence of unplanned maintenance delays. Likewise, the ATC system itself needs to be more predictive and more quickly proactive, as getting everything right with today’s system is still like trying to win a horse race with a 300-pound jockey.
There are many stakeholders that make the nations air travel more reliable for customers and employees. While airlines bear the brunt of the complaints as they deal directly with the delayed or canceled customer, airlines cannot resolve this on their own. When everyone works together to solve a common problem, things get fixed. Every airline passenger, every airline operator and the secretary of the DOT should promote this.