July was the second busiest month in DFW International Airport’s history, with 6.9 million passengers traveling through the airport at the height of the summer holiday season.
Passengers departing for cruises, family gatherings, business trips and post-pandemic getaways received nearly 90% of all available seats on inbound and outbound flights on DFW during the month.
Perhaps the crowds would have been larger had the return of travel not stopped abruptly when airlines cut this summer to address a crippling lack of pilots combined with high rates of delays and cancellations due in part to this lack of pilots.
“Everything has run out; That’s the point,” said Yolanda Meador, Irving-based travel agency and owner of You Deserve It!! holidays. “And now we’re in decline at a time when things need to lighten up and not slow down.”
Deficiencies in the airline industry are causing subtle and overt changes in the US travel system. Major airlines like Fort Worth-based American Airlines rely less on regional partners, with cancellations and delays increasing.
Here are five charts showing how travel has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic:
Fewer pilots means less flight
The pilot shortage that has plagued the travel industry for nearly two decades has now become the main constraint for airlines, forcing carriers to cut back on recovery plans as flight demand skyrocketed. At a conference of regional airline executives in Washington DC this month, industry leaders said about 14,000 new pilots are needed each year, adding only about 6,000.
“We expect to see a shortage of 28,000 pilots over the next decade,” said Chris Brown, vice president of government affairs for the National Air Carriers Association. “We need dialogue on solutions”
Airlines responded by cutting flights this year. They also said it could take years to get the problem under control.
According to flight schedule service Cirium, airlines flew around 13% fewer flights this summer compared to the summer of 2019. The trend continues in autumn and winter.
This translates to around 100,000 fewer flights each month in the airline industry.
This also means that there are fewer routes to fewer destinations, especially smaller cities. American Airlines completely cut off flights to cities like Dubuque and Iowa; Toledo, Ohio; and Islip and Ithaca in New York.
It’s changing who flies our planes
54% of all flights sold by American, Delta or United in 2019 were operated by one of its smaller regional airline partners, with names like American Eagle, Endeavor and United Express. Some companies operating these flights, such as Compass, SkyWest, and Republic, are independent and fly for larger carriers. Others, such as Envoy and Horizon, are owned by larger airlines.
Now, passengers are much less likely to fly a regional jet because pilots working on these airlines leave American, United, Delta or Southwest for more money. According to Cirium’s data, most American Airlines flights were with regional carriers between October 2015 and the end of 2021. But less than half took part in regional carriers in 2022.
“Depending on the relationship between the regional carrier and the parent airline – American Airlines has some of its own companies – they can take the same, highly skilled pilots and regroup them to fly larger planes with more passengers and lower cost,” Mike said. Arnot is Cirium’s spokesperson. “Better use of a scarce resource.”
Nearly 1,000 American Airlines pilots have retired amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including many who bought to leave early. These cuts made travel recovery more difficult as the need to hire new pilots grew.
“COVID struck 30 years ago at a time when we made some of the biggest hires in our history as an airline industry,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said at the US Travel Association Conference on Sept. 20. “So what do the pilots mean, I can’t fly past 65 and they all retire at the same time.”
American said it plans to hire as many as 4,000 pilots by the end of 2023.
Planes are different too.
Boarding a regional airline also means flying in small 50- to 76-seat jets made by Embraer or Bombardier. These planes usually had a four-seat-wide cabin and primarily mixed passengers from small cities to large hubs.
“We have a hundred planes on the ground due to a shortage of pilots and this remains a real challenge,” Stephen Neuman, American Airlines vice president of global government affairs, said at the Regional Airlines Association conference.
It’s not all bad news. Regional airline jets are smaller and have less comfort and premium seats than larger airplanes manufactured by Boeing and Airbus.
It can also be more economical for airlines. While this means parking some aircraft, carriers “upgrade” some flights to use larger aircraft, or even wide-bodies, for flights previously performed by smaller aircraft.
“Flying a jet is expensive, mainly due to fuel and pilots, and these costs are measured in terms of the number of seats flown,” said Arnot. “Regional jets have fewer seats – 76 or less – and so the higher costs per seat flown are just math.”
Low supply meets high demand
Airfares dropped to historic lows in 2020 due to COVID-19. Consumers have enjoyed low airfare prices for nearly two years, with prices exceeding pre-pandemic levels in April.
According to the consumer price index, through May, the average airfare was 22% higher than in the same month of 2019.
As the summer peak subsides, the price gap narrows, and travel agents say tickets are still expensive as fall enters.
Austin-based travel agent Keith Waldon said it’s difficult to find seats on planes, even for those who want to upgrade to business or first class.
“The front of the plane is sold at full price and there isn’t a lot of opportunity for upgrades,” said Waldon, founder of Departure Lounge travel agency. “Many of our customers with accumulated points cannot use them.”
High prices helped offset the airlines’ higher spending on fuel and labor. In the second quarter of this year, American made its first profit since 2019 without government assistance. US airlines posted a profit of $2.2 billion in the second quarter after losing $5.1 billion in the same period of the previous year.
Flights became less reliable in 2022
Carriers have struggled with increasing delays and cancellations as airlines increase flights in 2021 and 2022 to return to pre-pandemic levels and respond to high demand from passengers.
According to government data, by July this year, about 25% of planes landed more than 15 minutes late. This is the lowest on-time arrival rate since 2014.
And almost 3% of flights were cancelled, the highest rate in at least a decade excluding 2020, when thousands of flights were canceled when the pandemic blinded airlines.
“Our timely performance isn’t exactly returning to our historical averages, but it’s very respectable and our mission is to get everyone where they want to go that day and not cancel their flight,” said Southwest Airlines president Gary Kelly. Commerce Global Aerospace Summit on August 16. “So we run a little later. … We have a long way to go and our company’s #1 priority is to return to this operational excellence.”